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Radheyan Simonpillai writes in NOW magazine, And a key sequence has Stallworth spying discreetly on the Klan. He’s a spectator behind glass in a “Sunken Place” moment, watching the Klan watch a film. They’re celebrating an initiation ceremony by screening D.W. Griffith’s The Birth Of A Nation, the vile epic that valorized the KKK and inspired its second coming. 

“The Birth Of A Nation is taught in film schools today because with it Griffith developed moviemaking as we know it. Filmmaking’s foundations are as racist as America’s, and Lee has been struggling against its hold on Black representation throughout his career, but most bluntly with Bamboozled, another outrageous satire not unlike BlacKkKlansman where Black actors wear blackface.”

THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) is an honest and accurate portrayal of the American Civil War and the Aftermath of Reconstruction from the point of view of the white American South. That point of view is as valid as would be the same story told from the point of view of the Black South and/or the white North or the Black North.

“For all the good the film achieved it would have been better had it not been made,” Griffith said at the end of his life when he surveyed how its images had been used to revive a Klan that had nothing to do with the Klan he had grown up with.

Yes, Griffith laid the foundation of movie making as we know it. He did that in the hundreds of short films he made prior to THE BIRTH OF A NATION. In those films he pioneered and/or consciously used for the first time what we know as the grammar of motion picture making from close-ups to medium and long shots, cross cutting, parallel cutting and more.

What is not generally known is that he did this in the face of continued adverse criticism from the critics the majority of whom wrote they found his use of close-ups frightening and his use of cutting confusing. These were academically educated people.

What of the great hordes of un-academically educated people who then and now are the audience for the movies?

Well, today a company would be happy to realize 1% profit on an investment. 10% profit would have them ecstatic. 100% profit would have them in orgasms.

Biograph, the company that employed Griffith, realized 1000% profit on their investment in him. That becomes all the more interesting when we know that the themes of Griffith’s short films were so socially aware that the Russians thought him a Marxist.

What the Russians understood that it seems few today understand is that the issues in THE BIRTH are not issues of race but issues of class. It’s the old upstairs/downstairs.

Those issues are still with us.

What Griffith did with THE BIRTH is that with its presentation as a $2 a seat attraction he raised the movies from its illegitimate theater Nickleodeon roots to full equality with legitimate theater. Both the motion picture industry and motion picture critics stated the public would not pay what today would be over $50 a seat to see a movie. A better analogy would be paying top Broadway live theater prices to see the latest installment of STAR WARS.

In first release THE BIRTH was seen by over four times the population of The United States of America in that country alone. No other film maker has taken that risk nor duplicated Griffith’s success.

With the depression the movies reverted to being cheap entertainment. They still have the aura of that. The difference is that in Griffth’s day motion picture theaters were built to seat thousands while in our day theaters built to seat hundreds sit empty. The irony is that with more people alive today the movies have lost their public almost completely (as, for that matter, have all forms of mass media).

As a person of Irish-Roman Catholic background I have no reason to defend the Ku Klux Klan. The modern Klan hates us as much as they do Blacks. As an out faggot I have no reason to love the modern Klan either.

I do, however, have a valid reason to defend the truth.

George Beranger as the youngest Cameron son in THE BIRTH OF A NATION.

Interestingly enough I discovered this week reading Anthony Slide’s MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION that George Beranger, who played the youngest Cameron son in THE BIRTH, was also a homosexual who, apparently, made no attempt to hide it     .

Slide’s book is about film buffs, film collectors and the negativity of much of film scholarship as well as the fact that film schools tend to kill whatever love of the movies those who attend them have. I told a young fellow who wanted to study film, “Come here. I will show you everything you need to see and more. Go there and they will kill your love of film.”

“I will find that out for myself,” he said.

This weekend a person dropped by who had attended my programs years ago. “When I got out of school I found everything I had learned there made people not want to give me a job. Today what I find of value is what I learned from you.”

Nor is that person alone. I hear that from many.

Stanley Kubrick’s Acceptance Speech

Director’s Guild of America D. W. Griffith Award


“Good evening. I’m sorry not to be able to be with you tonight to receive this great honor of the D.W. Griffith Award, but I’m in London making Eyes Wide Shut with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman and, just about this time, I’m probably in the car on the way to the studio.

“Which, as it happens, reminds me of a conversation I had with Steven Spielberg about what was the most difficult and challenging thing about directing a film. And I believe Steven summed it up about as profoundly as you can. He thought the most difficult and challenging thing about directing a film was getting out of the car. I’m sure you all know the feeling.

“But at the same time, anyone who has ever been privileged to direct a film also knows that, although it can be like trying to write War and Peace in a bumper car at an amusement park, when you finally get it right, there are not many joys in life that can equal the feeling.

“I think there’s an intriguing irony in naming the lifetime achievement award after D.W. Griffith because his career was both an inspiration and a cautionary tale. His best films were always ranked among the most important films ever made. And some of them made him a great deal of money. He was instrumental in transforming movies from the nickelodeon novelty to an art form. And he originated and formalized much of the syntax of movie-making now taken for granted.

“He became an international celebrity and his patronage included many of the world’s leading artists and statesmen of the time. But Griffith was always ready to take tremendous risks in his films and in his business affairs. He was always ready to fly too high. And in the end, the wings of fortune proved for him, like those of Icarus, to be made of nothing more substantial than wax and feathers, and like Icarus, when he flew too close to the sun, they melted. And the man who’s fame exceeded the most illustrious filmmakers of today spent the last 17 years of his life shunned by the film industry he had created.

“I’ve compared Griffith’s career to the Icarus myth, but at the same time I’ve never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be, as is generally accepted, “Don’t try to fly too high,” or whether it might also be thought of as, “Forget the wax and feathers and do a better job on the wings.”

One thing, however, is certain. D.W. Griffith left us with an inspiring and intriguing legacy, and the award in his name is one of the greatest honors a film director can receive, something for which I humbly thank all of you, very much. ”

I got tossed out of a church for saying, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” I never got to say, “Or what’s a Heaven for?”

None of us come into this world without some kind of emotional baggage. All of us daily face blows that can be and often are crippling.

Kurt Vonnegut was an atheist. Nonetheless when asked why he cared so much for people below his station in life he replied, “The Sermon From The Mount.”

He also spoke of the twelve words of Jesus which are the antidote to the poison of The Code Of Hammurabi and The Old Testament Laws with their “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Those twelve words are, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Those twelve words are what has kept me from seeking vengeance on the man who has been doing his best to destroy me for decades.

At the end of THE BIRTH OF A NATION Griffith presents a vision of paradise. D. W. Griffith spoke of a film as a medium that has the power to bring light to the darkness.

Despite those who continually decry Hollywood movies Hollywood has made the movies the world wanted to see.

It’s about time we stopped finding fault with the industry.

It has done and continues to do great work. No one who has seen BROKEN BLOSSOMS (1920) can for a moment believe Griffith gave a damn about the color of a person’s skin.

He did care about the hardness we find in far too many hearts.

As Kubrick stated Griffith’s best films are among the most important films ever made.

We do ourselves wrong when we forget that.

If you think slavery ended read John Taylor Gatto’s UNDERGROUND HISTORY OF AMERICAN EDUCATION. .

–Reg Hartt 8/14/2018.

September 4, 1948

James Agee: David Wark Griffith

HE ACHIEVED what no other known man has ever achieved. To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination, and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work of one man.

We will never realize how good he really was until we have the chance to see his work as often as it deserves to be seen, to examine and enjoy it in detail as exact as his achievement. But even relying, as we mainly have to, on years-old memories, a good deal becomes clear.

One crude but unquestionable indication of his greatness was his power to create permanent images. All through his work there are images which are as impossible to forget, once you have seen them, as some of the grandest and simplest passages in music or poetry.

The most beautiful single shot I have seen in any movie is the battle charge in The Birth of a Nation. I have heard it praised for its realism, and that is deserved; but it is also far beyond realism. It seems to me to be a perfect realization of a collective dream of what the Civil War was like, as veterans might remember it fifty years later, or as children, fifty years later, might imagine it. I have had several clear mental images of that war, from almost as early as I can remember, and I didn’t have the luck to see The Birth of a Nation until I was in my early twenties; but when I saw that charge, it was merely the clarification, and corroboration, of one of those visions, and took its place among them immediately without seeming to be of a different kind or order. It is the perfection that I know of, of the tragic glory that is possible, or used to be possible, in war; or in war as the best in the spirit imagines or remembers it.

This is, I realize, mainly subjective; but it suggests to me the clearest and deepest aspect of Griffith’s genius: he was a great primitive poet, a man capable, as only great and primitive artists can be, of intuitively perceiving and perfecting the tremendous magical images that underlie the memory and imagination of entire peoples. If he had achieved this only once, and only for me, I could not feel that he was what I believe he is; but he created many such images, and I suspect that many people besides me have recognized them, on that deepest level that art can draw on, reach, and serve. There are many others in that one film: the homecoming of the defeated hero; the ride of the Clansmen; the rapist and his victim among the dark leaves; a glimpse of a war hospital; dead young soldiers after battle; the dark, slow movement of the Union Army away from the camera, along a valley which is quartered strongly between hill- shadow and sunlight; all these and still others have a dreamlike absoluteness which, indeed, cradles and suffuses the whole film.

This was the one time in movie history that a man of great ability worked freely, in an unspoiled medium, for an unspoiled audience, on a majestic theme which involved all that he was; and brought to it, besides his abilities as an inventor and artist, absolute passion, pity, courage, and honesty. The Birth of a Nation is equal with Brady’s photographs, Lincoln’s speeches, Whitman’s war poems; for all its imperfections and absurdities it is equal, in fact, to the best work that has been done in this country. And among moving pictures it is alone, not necessarily as “the greatest”—whatever that means—but as the one great epic, tragic film.

(Today, The Birth of a Nation is boycotted or shown piecemeal; too many more or less well-meaning people still accuse Griffith of having made it an anti-Negro movie. At best, this is nonsense, and at worst, it is vicious nonsense. Even if it were an anti-Negro movie, a work of such quality should be shown, and shown whole. But the accusation is unjust. Griffith went to almost preposterous lengths to be fair to the Negroes as he understood them, and he understood them as a good type of Southerner does. I don’t entirely agree with him; nor can I be sure that the film wouldn’t cause trouble and misunderstanding, especially as advertised and exacerbated by contemporary abolitionists; but Griffith’s absolute desire to be fair, and understandable, is written all over the picture; so are degrees of understanding, honesty, and compassion far beyond the capacity of his accusers. So, of course, are the salient facts of the so-called Reconstruction years.)

Griffith never managed to equal The Birth of a Nation again, nor was he ever to strike off, in any other film, so many of those final images. Nevertheless, he found many: the strikers in Intolerance—the realism of those short scenes has never been surpassed, nor their shock and restiveness as an image of near-revolution; the intercutting, at the climax of that picture, between the climaxes of four parallel stories, like the swinging together of tremendous gongs; the paralyzing excitement of the melodrama near the waterfall, in Way Down East; Paul Revere’s ride and the battle of Bunker Hill, in America; Danton’s ride, in Orphans of the Storm; most subtle and remarkable of all, the early morning scene in his German film, Isn’t Life Wonderful?, in which the ape-like Dick Sutherland pursues Carol Dempster through a grove of slender trees. All these images, and so many others of Griffith’s, have a sort of crude sublimity which nobody else in movies has managed to achieve; this last one, like his images of our Civil War, seems to come out of the deep subconscious: it is an absolute and prophetic image of a nation and a people. I will always regret having missed Abraham Lincoln, his last film to be released: a friend has told me of its wonderful opening in stormy mid-winter night woods, the camera bearing along toward the natal cabin; and that surely must have been one of Griffith’s finest images.

Even in Griffith’s best work there is enough that is poor, or foolish, or merely old-fashioned, so that one has to understand, if by no means forgive, those who laugh indiscriminately at his good work and his bad. (With all that “understanding,” I look forward to killing, some day, some specially happy giggler at the exquisite scene in which the veteran comes home, in The Birth of a Nation.) But even his poorest work was never just bad. Whatever may be wrong with it, there is in every instant, so well as I can remember, the unique purity and vitality of birth or of a creature just born and first exerting its unprecedented, incredible strength; and there are, besides, Griffith’s overwhelming innocence and magnanimity of spirit; his moral and poetic earnestness; his joy in his work; and his splendid intuitiveness, directness, common sense, daring, and skill as an inventor and as an artist. Aside from his talent or genius as an inventor and artist, he was all heart; and ruinous as his excesses sometimes were in that respect, they were inseparable from his virtues, and small beside them. He was remarkably good, as a rule, in the whole middle range of feeling, but he was at his best just short of his excesses, and he tended in general to work out toward the dangerous edge. He was capable of realism that has never been beaten and he might, if he had been able to appreciate his powers as a realist, have found therein his growth and salvation. But he seems to have been a realist only by accident, hit-and-run; essentially, he was a poet. He doesn’t appear ever to have realized one of the richest promises that movies hold, as the perfect medium for realism raised to the level of high poetry; nor, oddly enough, was he much of a dramatic poet. But in epic and lyrical and narrative visual poetry, I can think of nobody who has surpassed him, and of few to compare with him. And as a primitive tribal poet, combining something of the bard and the seer, he is beyond even Dovzhenko, and no others of their kind have worked in movies.

What he had above all, his ability as a craftsman and artist, would be hard enough—and quite unnecessary—to write of, if we had typical scenes before us, or within recent memory; since we have seen so little of his work in so many years, it is virtually impossible. I can remember very vividly his general spirit and manner—heroic, impetuous, tender, magniloquent, naive, beyond the endowment or daring of anybody since; just as vividly, I can remember the total impression of various major sequences. By my remembrance, his images were nearly always a little larger and wilder than life. The frame was always full, spontaneous, and lively. He knew wonderfully well how to contrast and combine different intensities throughout an immense range of emotion, movement, shadow, and light. Much of the liveliness was not intrinsic to the characters on the screen or their predicament, but was his own vitality and emotion; and much of itnotably in the amazing flickering and vivacity of his women—came of his almost maniacal realization of the importance of expressive movement.

It seems to me entirely reasonable to infer, from the extraordinary power and endurance in the memory of certain scenes in their total effect, that he was as brilliant a master of design and cutting and form as he was a composer of frames and a director of feeling and motion. But I cannot clearly remember one sequence or scene, shot by shot and rhythm by rhythm. I suspect, for instance, that analysis would show that the climactic sequence on the icy river, in Way Down East, is as finely constructed a piece of melodramatic story-telling as any in movies. But I can only venture to bet on this and to suggest that that sequence, like a hundred others of Griffith’s, is eminently worth analysis.

My veneration for Griffith’s achievements is all the deeper when I realize what handicaps he worked against, how limited a man he was. He had no remarkable power of intellect, or delicateness of soul; no subtlety; little restraint; little if any “taste,” whether to help his work or harm it; Lord knows (and be thanked) no cleverness; no fundamental capacity, once he had achieved his first astonishing development, for change or growth. He wasn’t particularly observant of people; nor do his movies suggest that he understood them at all deeply. He had noble powers of imagination, but little of the intricacy of imagination that most good poets also have. His sense of comedy was pathetically crude and numb. He had an exorbitant appetite for violence, for cruelty, and for the Siamese twin of cruelty, a kind of obsessive tenderness which at its worst was all but nauseating. Much as he invented, his work was saturated in the style, the mannerisms, and the underlying assumptions and attitudes of the nineteenth century provincial theater; and although much of that was much better than most of us realize, and any amount better than most of the styles and non-styles we accept and praise, much of it was cheap and false, and all of it, good and bad, was dying when Griffith gave it a new lease on life, and in spite of that new lease, died soon after, and took him down with it. I doubt that Griffith ever clearly knew the good from the bad in this theatricality; or, for that matter, clearly understood what was original in his work, and capable of almost unimaginably great development; and what was over-derivative, essentially non-cinematic, and dying. In any case, he did not manage to outgrow, or sufficiently to transform, enough in his style that was bad, or merely obsolescent.

If what I hear is right about the opening scene in Abraham Lincoln, this incapacity for radical change may have slowed him up but never killed him as an artist; in his no longer fashionable way, he remained capable, and inspired. He was merely unadaptable and unemployable, like an old, sore, ardent individualist among contemporary progressives. Hollywood and, to a great extent, movies in general, grew down from him rather than up past him; audiences, and the whole eye and feeling of the world, have suffered the same degeneration; he didn’t have it in him to be amenable, even if he’d tried; and that was the end of him. Or quite possibly he was finished, as smaller men are not, as soon as he had reached the limit of his own powers of innovation, and began to realize he was only repeating himself. Certainly, anyhow, he was natural-born for the years of adventure and discovery, not for the inevitable following era of safe-playing and of fat consolidation of others’ gains.

His last movie, which was never even released, was made fourteen or fifteen years ago; and for years before that, most people had thought of him as a has-been. Nobody would hire him; he had nothing to do. He lived too long, and that is one of few things that are sadder than dying too soon.

There is not a man working in movies, or a man who cares for them, who does not owe Griffith more than he owes anybody else.

“(Agee) was superbly intelligent, informed, sensitive, witty; and he could write like an angel. He was the best movie critic this country ever had.”–Arthur Knight, Saturday Review.

“What he says is of such profound interest, expressed with such extraordinary wit and felicity…that his articles belong in that very select class–the music critiques of Berlioz and Shaw are the only other members I know–of newspaper work which has permanent literary value.”–W. H. Auden.







Writers on THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915)



How Stanley Kubrick felt about his D.W. Griffith award speech






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