Masters Of Cinema #52 - The Birth Of A Nation - Blu-ray Review

The Birth Of A Nation occupies a slot in cinematic history it is impossible to usurp it from and because of this, assessors of cinema can find it difficult to decide whether it is possible to forgive D.W. Griffith's film's obvious and overt racism.

In search of an answer to this quandary finding some sort of modern equivalent attitude is potentially helpful. In 1915 USA, attitudes to race were changing, certainly when compared to earlier decades. Reception of the film was mixed, with reported rioting in Northern cities and some deal of appreciation and understanding of its morals in the South. To my mind, the reception of The Birth Of A Nation, feels at least partially similar to today's conversation and apparent split over the right of homosexual couples to marry.

Take or leave that argument as you will but the point forms thus: if someone in 2013 was to make a technically excellent film, using new narrative techniques that would revolutionise the industry for years, but said film was overtly homophobic, not just in its characters but in its arguments and presentations, would we feel comfortable shrugging those elements off, accepting that the film is brilliant, because of its technical expertise and accepted innovation? I suggest that most of us would not.

To forgive The Birth Of A Nation its numerous racist faults then, feels false. This is a poisonous film, not saved by its place in history, nor its narrative smarts. Griffith's depiction of the Ku Klux Klan as saviours of the American way of life is skewed, vicious, vitriol of the worst kind, with the film shot through of heinous depictions of the supposed evils of African Americans. 'The KKK' reads one of the 'captions', featuring portentous D.W. Griffith signature border, 'the organisation that saved the South from the anarchy of black rule'. Make no mistake: this opinion is overt and unashamed throughout, especially in the second half.

For those who can see past the film's morals, its twisted arguments, the best work of the narrative is found in the first half, before the intermission titles. War is presented as something which seeps into the genteel living rooms of affluent middle classes, forcing sons to war and daughters to poverty. Punctuated by some simple love arcs, the realisation of a nation divided is fairly well managed and depicted, if not vividly then at least reasonably successfully.

The accompanying score, performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, is fantastic, sweeping around ditties and booming moments; by turns sounding like Beethoven vs The Score to Jonathan Creek.

But behind any work that may be considered 'good' here are morals so perverted they were, at least for me, too difficult to look past. Maybe others will see something and their 'but' clause will be Gritth's attitudes. Personally, I found these less of an afterthought than a front and centre assault on common rights every man deserves to share both now and in 1915.

Founded in 2004, The Masters of Cinema Series is an independent, carefully curated, UK-based Blu-ray and DVD label, now consisting of over 150 films. Films are presented in their original aspect ratio (OAR), in meticulous transfers created from recent restorations and / or the most pristine film elements available.

The Birth Of A Nation is released in the UK on Monday 22nd July 2013

By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

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