The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Genres - Epic, Historical Film  |   Sub-Genres - Historical Epic  |   Run Time - 192 min.  |   Countries - USA  |   MPAA Rating - G
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The conflicted legacy of this first American blockbuster epic rests on the combination of Southern-bred D.W. Griffith's landmark technical achievements and his racism, as his version of the Civil War and Reconstruction highlighted fears of miscegenation and the heroism of the Ku Klux Klan. Aiming to make the greatest film ever, Griffith deployed all the technical experiments of his previous movies for maximum visceral effect, along with a prepared score mixing classical music and folk tunes. With expressive close-ups and long shots, irises and superimpositions, Griffith communicated not only the monumental scale of Civil War battles but also the intimate psychology of his central characters. The climactic ride of the Klan to save white girlhood from black defilement marked Griffith's most extraordinary and influential use of parallel editing to galvanize emotional excitement. The longest and most expensive American film made as of 1915, Birth opened to raves for its artistry and record-breaking box office returns, helping to legitimize movies as "respectable" entertainment. Its force was hardly all positive, however, as the NAACP organized a public campaign against the film and demanded that Griffith make cuts; the film was banned in several states for its racism, race riots broke out after its Boston premiere, and it directly influenced the 20th century reemergence of the Klan. As paradoxical proof of its cinematic power, Birth of a Nation still arouses protests decades after it was made.