Monday, 9 February 2015

Birth of a Nation (4 Stars)

I'm one day late. I intended to watch this film yesterday, but I didn't have time. "Birth of a Nation" is the first full length feature film ever to be made, and it was released in the cinemas on February 8th, 1915. Yesterday was an important anniversary that should have been celebrated by all film fans. That makes it all the more astounding that at the Bafta film awards which took place last night no mention was made of this film.

Maybe it's the controversy surrounding the film that hasn't been lived down yet, not even after 100 years. It's a film about the American Civil War and its aftermath, the Reconstruction, and in its latter part the Ku Klux Klan are portrayed as the heroes. After seeing this film for the first time about ten years ago I did some research on the subject, and I came to the conclusion that the portrayal of the KKK in its first incarnation, a group that was created in 1865 and disbanded in 1874, is accurate. It was a group created with idealistic intentions by people with a genuine desire to do good, but it was soon infiltrated by racists, which is the reason why it was disbanded so soon. When people today think of the KKK they mean the third group with this name, which wasn't founded until the middle of the 20th Century.

The film follows the fortune of two fictional families, the Camerons in the South and the Stonemans in the North. Before the war the two families are friends, but when the war breaks out their sons fight on opposite sides. After the war Ben Cameron is sentenced to death, but he's granted a personal pardon by President Abraham Lincoln. The President is determined to show leniency to the southern states, but after his assassination in 1865 extremists gain influence who want to punish the southern states for daring to rebel. Foremost among them is Austin Stoneman, who moves to the south and passes harsh laws that effectively take away the rights of the wealthy white citizens. At the next election many of the white populace are not allowed to vote, leading to the election of a 90% black local government. This leads to gross injustices in courts, in which experienced white judges are replaced by untrained black judges. There is only one way to save the southern states from chaos. Ben Cameron founds an organisation, the Ku Klux Klan, that holds fair trials against wrong-doers. At the next election the KKK acts as observers to make sure that the voting is fair.

Of course, the film is one-sided. It doesn't show the excesses that were carried out even in the first phase of the KKK. However, it's a fair portrayal of its creation and its first acts. The director D. W. Griffith was fast to insist that he was not a racist, and he proved this by making the film "Intolerance" in the following year.

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