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  • 1 Awards/Nominations - The Birth of a Nation
The Birth Of A Nation
Force Entertainment/Force Entertainment . R4 . B&W . 190 mins . PG . PAL

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When the “father of modern cinema”, D. W. Griffith released The Birth of a Nation in 1915, he did not anticipate the storm of controversy he would be required to endure for the rest of his professional career, and which would stigmatise him beyond his death. It provoked heated debate from activists on both sides of the argument regarding the film’s atrociously racist stereotypes and its historical inaccuracies.

Before The Birth of a Nation, motion pictures were short and rarely exceeded one reel; in addition, there were episodic, rather than coherent, dramatic pieces. Griffith’s films revolutionised cinema with their length, often running several hours, and his innovative use of close-ups, fade-outs, flashback sequences, and parallel editing. The Birth of a Nation shattered previous conceptions of film-making in terms of its scope and budget; costing over $100,000, it quickly earned $10 million upon its first release.

Soon after the film’s debut, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (or NAACP) protested vehemently against its derogative portrayals of African-Americans, publishing a 47-page pamphlet titled “Fighting a Vicious Film: Protest Against The Birth of a Nation.” The NAACP condemned Griffith’s epic as “three hours of filth.” W. E. B. Du Bois published withering reviews in The Crisis, which prompted contentious sessions among the National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures, regarding the possible implementation of a nation-wide ban.

Despite threats that the film might not be shown in New York, President and former history professor Woodrow Wilson remarked that not only was The Birth of a Nation historically accurate, but it was like “history writ with lightning.” Typically, many Caucasians shared the sentiments of Wilson, believing that it was an accurate and faithful portrayal of racial politics at that time. However, time has since proved differently.

Adapted from white supremacist Rev. Thomas Dixon’s novel, The Clansman, a work much reviled for its sympathetic view towards the Ku Klux Klan as idealistic saviours, The Birth of a Nation’s story is simplistic at best. The film's story arc revolves around the plights of two families - the Stonemans from the North and the Camerons from the South - and addresses the origins of the American Civil War, the devastation it had wrought upon its people, and the social turmoil created by the Reconstruction.

The film’s negative depiction of Southern Negroes as the cause of all of the United States’ social, political and economic woes during both the war and its aftermath can be attributed to Griffith’s own personal experience. Himself a Southerner and the son of a Confederate cavalry officer, Griffith allegedly targeted African-Americans and Reconstructionists for his private misfortunes. Therefore, it is of no surprise that a sense of bigotry dominates the film.

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The Birth of a Nation is presented in its correct screen aspect ratio of 1.33:1, and, therefore, is not anamorphic.

Black levels are quite solid and seem, for the most part, to be relatively consistent, despite the fact that there are frequent fluctuations in both brightness and contrast. Details are somewhat variable. On a few occasions, they appear to respectably well-defined, however, throughout the majority of the film, they seemed rather soft; this can be attributed to lighting effects associated with exterior location shooting and primitive interior lighting. It is not indicative of the transfer itself.

There are no apparent MPEG artefacts, although there is an abundance of film artefacts, consisting of nicks, hairs, scratches, and instances of significant print damage. Consequently, there are moments where the film jumps - the result of both damage to the film negative and poor editing. Despite this, none of these problems posed any detrimental effect to the viewing experience, as flaws of this nature are not to be unexpected with a film of this vintage.

As The Birth of a Nation is filmed in black-and-white, there are no issues relating to colour-bleeding or oversaturation.

There is only one audio selection available, that of the Dolby Digital 2.0 sound track. Viewed via the Dolby Pro-Logic decoder, The Birth of a Nation’s orchestral score (originally provided by Joseph Carl Breil and Griffith himself) is presented throughout both the front and rear soundstages, and is constantly featured in all five channels. Always clear, if somewhat lacking in its frequency range, the film’s score consists of traditional American anthems and selected classical pieces - most notably, Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries.

Included on the disc is an excellent addition, The Making of the Birth of a Nation. Running for a length of 23 minutes and 58 seconds, this documentary, narrated by film historian David Shepard, examines the film’s origins, its controversial depiction of the KKK, and its contribution to American and world cinema. Also featured is rare archival footage of the American Civil War and previously unseen publicity stills.

The Birth of a Nation should best be viewed in a historical context. While it deserves its status as a true cinematic classic and as a landmark film, it also contains abhorrently racist sentiments and perpetuates numerous stereotypes against African-Americans. Indeed, in 1915, showings of the film were responsible for an alarming resurgence in Klan membership, which resulted in an increase of the acts of violence committed against American Negroes.

It is for this reason that numerous people, including many film historians, believe that the film should be removed from public exhibition. However, The Birth of a Nation should been seen and regarded for what it is: An ambitious, if seriously flawed, masterpiece which forever changed both public perception of motion pictures and the directorial techniques associated with them. Griffth’s influence on cinema continues to resonate, even with the most current crop of Hollywood blockbusters.


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  •   And I quote...
    "A cinematic landmark... and one which altered the course of motion picture history..."
    - Shaun Bennett
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