Lightning, Camera, Action

By J. Hoberman

Can photographs, motion pictures, and television create social change? Or would it be more accurate to say that these camera-based forms construct a social reality? Michael Moore notwithstanding, the ultimate test case appeared 90 years ago: D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, released throughout America in the spring of 1915, remains the single most important movie ever made in this country, as well as the most inflammatory one.

A culmination of the hundreds of short, two-reel narratives, more or less codifying the language of narrative cinema, that Griffith ground out at the Biograph studio between 1908 and 1913, The Birth of a Nation was the longest, costliest, and most ambitious American movie of its day. Imagine an unholy cross between The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11, combined and rendered mega-Titanic (most movies in 1915 were still only 20 minutes long), drenched in the patriotic pathos of Saving Private Ryan, and tricked out with the historical shenanigans of Forrest Gump. It still wouldn't approximate the magnitude of Griffith's fervent, tendentious, wildly entertaining achievement.

Viewers were inundated with a cascade of images -- 1,500 separate shots when other features had fewer than 100. Like the Henry Ford of cine narrative, Griffith created an assembly line for cinema meaning; he broke dramatic scenes into component parts and reassembled them for maximum emotional impact. The Birth of a Nation hurtled through time and space, making unprecedented use of close-ups, cutaways, and parallel action. The miracle of moving pictures, less than 20 years old, was projected into the past. Griffith gave motion to Matthew Brady's photographs and staged Lincoln's assassination as a “historical facsimile,” complete with footnotes. Masses of extras were deployed to recreate the Battle of Petersburg and Sherman's march to the sea. Audiences were swept away; in some cities, the action was pumped with a 40-piece symphony orchestra.

In short, Griffith had produced the wonder of the age: a technological marvel, a masterpiece of promotion, a brilliantly constructed emotional roller coaster, a box-office gold mine -- and an utterly unambiguous and ruthlessly demagogic attack on African Americans. The Birth of a Nation is not simply the precursor of every Hollywood historical epic, stalker film, and thriller ever made; adapted from a best-selling novel by the Reverend Thomas Dixon that offered a militantly white-supremacist perspective on the Civil War and Reconstruction, Griffith's movie is an ideological horror show, filled with outrageous factual distortions and vile racial stereotypes. In the Gospel according to Griffith, the American nation is born when, as one of the film's climactic intertitles has it, the Ku Klux Klan enables North and South to unite in defense of their common “Aryan birthright.”

The Birth of a Nation was released for the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War -- just as America's ultimate trauma was poised to pass from living memory into national mythology. The son of a Kentucky colonel, Griffith took it upon himself to rewrite, and re-right, a historical wrong -- an act for which he sought, and received, official sanction. Two days before submitting the movie to the National Board of Review, he previewed it for President Woodrow Wilson and his cabinet. Wilson responded with the ultimate pull quote: “It is like writing history with lightning.” The following night the president had it screened for the justices of the Supreme Court and members of Congress.

The film was immediately attacked by many organizations -- notably the NAACP, which issued a statement declaring that “every resource of a magnificent new art has been employed with an undeniable attempt to picture Negroes in the worst possible light.” But it helped revive the KKK. Some 25,000 Klansmen marched down Peachtree Street in full regalia to celebrate the Atlanta premiere. Contested virtually everywhere it opened outside the old Confederacy, The Birth of a Nation was banned outright in Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis, San Antonio, and Topeka, Kansas. Boston saw the most protracted struggle: Weeks of mass meetings, demonstrations, and even legislative action reached their climax in June 1915 and came to naught when Mayor James Michael Curley simply refused to close the movie.

The Birth of Nation grossed more than $60 million -- well over a billion contemporary dollars -- during its first run. In New York, where it ran for 48 weeks, tickets were $2, at least 20 times as much as an ordinary picture show. Anticipating the special screenings to which secondary-school teachers escorted their classes, William Randolph Hearst's New York Evening Journal advised that, above all: “Children must be sent to see this masterpiece. Any parent who neglects this advice is committing an educational offense, for no film has ever produced more educational points than Griffith's latest achievement.” Throughout the rural South and Midwest, exhibitors chartered trains to bring audiences to large cities to see what Griffith had wrought.

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Marshaling the resources of its medium, The Birth of a Nation made history. More crucially, it changed history -- that is, it changed the ways by which the past might be represented. In Griffith's hands, the American past became a melodrama, at once cosmic and intimate. The Civil War is all in the family. The cataclysmic battle is punctuated by sudden close-ups of familiar characters; a distraught fictional mother meets the real Abraham Lincoln, who spares her Confederate son; in one of several metaphoric rape scenes, the Union army invades a specific southern home as the fearful family retreats from room to room.

No one has ever been more expressive than Griffith in subsuming 10,000 casualties in a single battlefield reunion or folding historical calamity in the pathos of an individual soldier's homecoming. But that, of course, is what war has become -- and not just on the screen. As the most heavily televised military operation in history, the Iraq War was necessarily an exercise in image making. Although immediately exposed as a staged pseudo-event, the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue lives on as television, broadcast when necessary to represent Iraq's liberation; the battle for Fallujah was the iconic Los Angeles Times photograph of a 20-year-old Marine dubbed the “Marlboro Man” for his battle-stained face and dangling cigarette.

The Iraq War's great human-interest item, the story of Private Jessica Lynch, is precisely the sort of captivity-and-rescue saga Griffith remade a dozen times as a Biograph two-reeler. Human interest is, for Griffith, history's driving force. He locates the impetus for Reconstruction in a sexual liaison between Senator Austin Stoneman, his stand-in for Senator Thaddeus Stevens, and Stoneman's mulatto housekeeper -- “the great leader's weakness that is to blight a nation.” History is its own allegory. (This sort of filmmaking is hardly restricted to Americans. The fervor with which German audiences embraced the recent Downfall, a re-enactment of Hitler's last days in the bunker, is less a testament to Bruno Ganz's performance as a “humanized” führer than the filmmakers' skill in surrounding the devil and his familiars with real yet airbrushed “ordinary” Germans to establish Germany as the first Nazi victim.)

Griffith taught the movies to take history personally, and politicians have been following his lead ever since. No one until Steven Spielberg has been better at pressing America's buttons -- unless it was Ronald Reagan, whose uncanny ability to recast American life into a movie starring a wisecracking action hero like himself reached its apotheosis a year ago in the media narratives occasioned by his death. Reagan was resurrected in a particularly awful way when Arnold Schwarzenegger created his own movie within the hyper-designed triumphalist pseudo-event of the 2004 Republican national convention. (What's remarkable is how long it took right-wing Republicans to admit how much they love Hollywood's animated action figures. Would that the misdirected satire Team America had taken that for its subject.)

But the melodrama of American politics is not only manifested in choreographed pep rallies, prepackaged “good news” segments, or even the robotic blitz of applied movie-dialogue sound bites that Schwarzenegger offered as a panacea for California's problems. As demonstrated by The Birth of a Nation, the scenario rules (and so does demonization). The 2004 election was more or less decided last July with the Republicans' redefinition of John Kerry's heroism and preemptive destruction of his Viet-vet narrative. George W. Bush's premature declaration of victory in Iraq may have been a joke, but it established him as a leader at home in a pilot's costume. For all of Kerry's Hollywood support, he was outacted.

The made-for-TV DC 9/11: Time of Crisis, the most significant political movie of the 2004 campaign, went Griffith one better by staging a recent event with a professional cast impersonating the current president and his administration. (There's no precedent: The Kennedys contrived a Hollywood PT-109 as a run-up to 1964; imagine if it had been a dramatization of the Cuban missile crisis!) Why not construct a narrative improvement on events as they unfold? “We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” a Bush spokesman famously told reporter Ron Suskind on the eve of the election.

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As was made apparent last summer when the Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles was forced to cancel a well-publicized screening, The Birth of a Nation is all but unshowable today. It is also humiliating to watch. Every year when I teach cinema history, I must convince myself that students need to see and discuss it if they are to understand the country in which they live.

We are all citizens of the state that Griffith prophesied -- the empire of total docudrama where actual figures mingle with fictional ones, real events are imbued with storybook logic, and everything is reflected in relentless hype. The Birth of a Nation is an object lesson in the manufacture of an image-based spectacle. Creaky as it is, the mechanism still works. The appeal is not to reason.

What's most chastening about The Birth of a Nation is its demonstration of what it can do, and, by extension, what all forms of camera-constructed reality can do. Griffith reminds us that movies are an authoritarian medium, that a successful film narrative is largely a function of gross emotional manipulation, and that history may not only be written but rewritten with lightning.

J. Hoberman is a senior film critic for The Village Voice and the author of The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties.