There have been a number of controversial films and filmmakers in cinema’s brief history. A Clockwork Orange, Salò, Swingers, the list goes on along with The Passion of the Christ, whose sequel has recently been talked about by Mel Gibson.
To me, though, there remains only one king of controversy. That comes courtesy of D.W Griffith.
David Wark Griffith (1875 – 1948) is considered to be the father of American cinema. While George Méliès and the Lumière Brothers invented the necessary technology and some of the foundational techniques of the movies to life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Griffith formalised many of the rules of filmmaking we take for granted today.
However, one of his greatest achievements in the medium is also one of the most embarrassingly offensive and dangerous works of art ever made.
This is his 1915 silent epic The Birth of a Nation. Often credited as the first fictional feature-length film (technically the Italian film Cabiria came first (1914)) it was enormously ground-breaking and was instrumental in transforming cinema from a sideshow attraction in the eyes of the world to a legitimate art-form.
Unfortunately, the film is a highly fictionalised retelling of the American Civil War. Here the Ku Klux Klan help end the war by aiding the North and South throw away their differences so they can fight the common enemy of black people, played by white people in black-face.
While, in terms of budget to box-office ratio, The Birth of a Nation was and continues to be one of the most successful films ever made, possibly due to its dubious content, D.W’s next film (ironically named Intolerance (1916)), which was made entirely without a script, proved extremely expensive and was not so successful.
D.W continued to make ambitious films, but these ended up so unsuccessful that he was eventually shunned from the Hollywood that he helped create and died with little fame. He made his last movie, The Struggle, in 1931 after having made approximately 500 short and feature films.
The Birth of a Nation has been controversial since its release 100 years ago. In the revival years of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th Century, this film was used as a recruitment tool. There have been calls for its ban for decades, continuing to this day.
So should it be banned?
Taking aside the logistical impossibility of banning a movie nowadays, this film, without exaggeration is one of the turning points in art history and should not be banned.
Hollywood and cinema as an art would be unrecognisably different without this film and its director. When novels first appeared in the 17th and 18th Century, for a long time they were seen as a distraction rather than a respectable art-form. The transformation of the motion picture in the eyes of the world is equivalent and this movie and this man did more than any other to ensure that change.
It is no small wonder that the Director’s Guild of America named their lifetime achievement award, the “D.W Griffith Award”.
Quote: “The task I’m trying to achieve, above all, is to make you see.” - D.W Griffith (1875 – 1948)