The Birth of a Nation

Movie Information

The Hendersonville Film Society will show part one of The Birth of a Nation at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 4, in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.
Score:

Genre: Historical Epic
Director: D.W. Griffith
Starring: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Miriam Cooper, Mary Alden, Ralph Lewis
Rated: NR

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, the Hendersonville Film Society has given over the month of September to screening two very long movies (each split in two) dealing with the war and its aftermath. (I guess they decided that firing on Fort Sumter would be too much.) The first is D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), a film of tremendous historical significance, which is often thought of as the moment American cinema grew up—at least in terms of what film was capable of doing. (It very often attempts more than it can actually accomplish.) Based on (and originally titled) The Clansman by Thomas F. Dixon Jr., this is a film that has been plagued by controversy since the very start—the title should give you a clue why, if you don’t already know. The first half of the film—detailing the war itself—is reasonably level-headed, but the second half, which deals with reconstruction and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan is another matter altogether. Griffith thought he was presenting a fair picture of the era, but it was a picture badly skewed by his own racism, spawned by his background. And it’s impossible to deny that the film itself is racist in turn. That, however, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be seen. On the contrary, it should be seen—not just because it’s historically significant filmmaking, but because it’s important to be reminded of this mindset, which is a dangerous thing to forget or pretend never existed. This does not, however, keep the film from being difficult to watch on occasion.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

11 thoughts on “The Birth of a Nation

  1. boatrocker

    Bob Dole was asked a few elections ago what his favorite movie was- yep,it was “Birth of a Nation”.

  2. Ken Hanke

    That’s a pretty peculiar answer however you look at it. You have to be pretty serious about movies to have even seen it.

    I remember Jimmy Carter once saying that Michael Winner’s 1978 The Big Sleep was his favorite.

  3. I remember Jimmy Carter once saying that Michael Winner’s 1978 The Big Sleep was his favorite.

    That seems strangely appropriate, although I’ve always thought it was more of a Gerald Ford.

    Which President would be the Altman THE LONG GOODBYE, I wonder?

  4. Ken Hanke

    Which President would be the Altman THE LONG GOODBYE, I wonder?

    Starting in 1980, I can think of three I couldn’t wait to see leave office.

  5. Sean R. Moorhead

    Griffith thought he was presenting a fair picture of the era, but it was a picture badly skewed by his own racism, spawned by his background.

    Is it wrong that I’m amused at Griffith’s painfully earnest attempts to prove that he was definitely not racist with Broken Blossoms?

  6. Ken Hanke

    Not wrong, but not entirely fair perhaps. In the context of its time — 1919 — it’s fairly forward thinking. In the confines of Griffith’s 19th century thinking and background, it’s even more so. It would be interesting to see the lost The Greatest Thing in Life (1918) for more on this.

  7. Chip Kaufmann

    The screening of BIRTH OF A NATION has been cancelled. Instead the Hendersonville Film Society will screen the 1913 Thomas Ince short THE DRUMMER OF THE 8th followed by John Huston’s 1951 film of THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE with Audie Murphy.

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