The Birth of a Nation Is a Perfect Teaching Tool for Media Literacy
Note: This is the eighty-fifth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fifth “favorite” 1915 film, THE BIRTH OF A NATION, directed by D.W. Griffith.
Let me start this piece on one of the most notorious and studied films of all time by saying THE BIRTH OF A NATION is not a favorite film of mine. In fact, it’s probably the only film I actively dislike on my “The 5 Best Films of Every Year Ever” list. And of course, it’s because it is incredibly racist. But it’s also one of the most important films of all time, and after some considerable time waffling back and forth between placing this on the list or not, I decided to discuss it. Sure, I’ll throw my voice into the ring of literally every film critic of all time in examining the tremendous power of Griffith’s monstrous masterwork.
THE BIRTH OF A NATION is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil. — Roger Ebert
The most genuinely chilling film ever made, not just because of its ideas, but because of how intricately and sophisticated the film is at translating them. And then twice as chilling, because this is what establishes the primary functions of narrative cinema. A really challenging film to write about — virtually impossible to write about this cohesively within capsule format, so here are just some notes — a proper study of the film would require an entire book.
Greater minds than mine (much, much greater minds) have produced work of tremendous depth in evaluating, analyzing, and criticizing THE BIRTH OF A NATION. As Bahadur points out, THE BIRTH OF A NATION is a really challenging film to write about, but it’s not only because of its content and how it communicates it. It’s also because so much has been written about it. That kind of makes it the perfect example for the need for robust media education and literacy.
The Center for Media Literacy cites the basic media literacy definition as “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media in a variety of forms.” But their expanded version, spurred by the growing complications of media in the 21st century, is:
It provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms — from print to video to the Internet. Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy.
In the context of THE BIRTH OF A NATION, media literacy means, to me, imparting the tools to critically assess the subject matter of media and how it is being communicated. It’s kind of vague. Media literacy is necessary, though, and I think it needs be taught from as young an age as possible. Of course, many of the tenets of media literacy are built into English courses and such. But critical understanding of more “pedestrian” or, on the other side, “fun” media is almost certainly more important. I don’t expect children growing up today to seek out THE BIRTH OF A NATION and suddenly think that Reconstruction was actually bad and African Americans ruined the heroism of the South. But I do expect them to browse the internet and be subjected to a vast amount of information, much of it likely false or fictionalized. Media literacy helps suss out the true from the false, the entertaining from the problematic.
I took a couple of college classes that emphasized media literacy. One was “Race, Gender, and Media” and the other was “Sex, Love, and Romance in Mass Media.” I think it’s safe to say they were two of the most important classes I took in my four years at Arizona State University. The classes were, in premise, simple concepts: race, gender, sex, relationships, and more are portrayed unrealistically in media. I think this is something many think they have a handle on. But digging into specific examples revealed the true power running underneath what we consider simple entertainment. At the core of both courses (and the concept of media literacy) was the idea that any and all media is a version of reality. A piece of media is at least two steps removed from what you perceive as your own reality; a piece of media is made by someone who experiences their own reality, who then transcribe a creation through the lens of what they think is their reality. But of course, most media isn’t made by just one person, which introduces a whole host of complicated interpretations.
Even still, a vision can shine through most media. The recognition of such a vision is inherent to the understanding of artistic intent, another core tenet of media literacy. These are concepts that may seem obvious to many. But the fact of the matter is that the consideration of the person behind a movie or a song or a show is not instinctual for just as many, if not more. I would say that’s fine; no one has to become a student of every bit of media they are exposed to.
But everyone should be able to distinguish (to cite something not nearly as monstrous as THE BIRTH OF A NATION) the questions raised by and the normalization of the relationship between Belle and the Beast in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991), for example. It’s OK to enjoy romantic comedies, but it’d be preferable if fans could understand that the relationships they depict are almost universally unrealistic. And to really understand that most media shouldn’t be a model of behavior in most situations!
THE BIRTH OF A NATION is a great starting point to explore this overlooked segment of education. It so powerfully communicated its endorsement of white supremacy that it’s credited for reviving interest in the Ku Klux Klan, fictional members of which star as heroes of the film. It has terrible things to say, but it does so eloquently. Much has been said of how Griffith did not truly invent the innovations that many attribute to THE BIRTH OF A NATION, or at least that he had exhibited them in some form in his earlier films. But Griffith married all of the techniques he developed, originally or not, within an epic form and length that itself made a statement, assigning them to a subject matter that clearly had resonance with a large population of the white American public in 1915.
THE BIRTH OF A NATION was famously racist even for its time, and was boycotted in due course…unsuccessfully. THE BIRTH OF A NATION, in spite of a lack of reliable box office receipt numbers, is generally regarded as the highest grossing Hollywood film until it was unseated by GONE WITH THE WIND (1939); you can read how I connect racism to American film’s three largest milestones here. Adjusting for inflation, it’s probably still among the most popular films ever made. The reality the birth of this film implies, and the reaction to it, is also an incredible gift of media literacy. Art imitates life and life imitates art. There is no BIRTH OF A NATION without a society wallowing in systemic racism and gross lies, and in a way, there is no development of the film industry, its members, and American society as a whole, for good and bad, without THE BIRTH OF A NATION.
THE BIRTH OF A NATION is unequivocally essential viewing. It is long and disgusting and hard to watch, but it is essential. This is America as it was 103 years ago, warped through the mind of a man that thought the world he presented told the true story of the Civil War and Reconstruction. This is not all America was, but the success of THE BIRTH OF A NATION gives insight into the reality into which it was brought. The form of the film was as shocking as its content, and I believe both still are today. Watch THE BIRTH OF A NATION and, hopefully, your eyes will be opened to the language of any medium, visual or otherwise, and how that language can be used to aggressively communicate ideas, good or bad. You’ll be better for it.