Ninety years ago today, at Clune's Auditorium in Los Angeles, 2,500 people watched the premiere of The Clansman, a 12-reel saga of the Civil War and Reconstruction directed by the Kentucky-born filmmaker D.W. Griffith. Later retitled The Birth of a Nation, the movie climaxes with a horde of Negroes besieging a cabin full of whites. If you've seen any modern zombie movie, then you've seen an echo of the cabin scene: In Griffith's eyes, the blacks outside that little house are the Living Dead, their monstrous arms reaching through the doors and windows while our heroes try desperately to fend them off. In Griffith's movie, the whites are rescued by the Ku Klux Klan, who subsequently strip the blacks of their arms and of the franchise.
The movie had already been condemned by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the city of Los Angeles had passed an injunction against a matinee screening. Other jurisdictions would soon ban the picture outright. But The Birth of a Nation had its defenders as well, and not just among the nation's racists. Birth was the first modern feature film, one that demonstrated just what could be done with cross-cutting, close-ups, elevated shots—what are now the basic building blocks of movie storytelling. That evening in Los Angeles, after the Klan rode to the rescue and the movie came to a close, a tremendous ovation swept Clune's Auditorium. And then, in the words of Griffith's associate Karl Brown, the director "stepped out a few feet from stage left, a small, almost frail figure lost in the enormousness of that great proscenium arch. He did not bow or raise his hands or do anything but just stood there and let wave after wave of cheers and applause wash over him like great waves breaking over a rock." Within a few months, the film's admirers would include President Woodrow Wilson, admittedly a pretty ferocious racist himself—though historians still debate whether he ever said the line often attributed to him, that what Griffith had done was "like writing history with Lightning."
Nine decades after its debut, critics still struggle to separate Birth's formal innovations from its racist themes. The general effect is to preserve a certain reverence for the picture but to dissuade people from enjoying it. That's not the worst possible result, but it does the director an injustice. If Griffith's racial paranoia is the most offensive element of the film, it is also the fuel for the movie's most powerful sequences. Roger Ebert once claimed that sophisticated audiences "find the early and wartime scenes brilliant, but cringe during the postwar and Reconstruction scenes"—that is, when the film's racism runs amok. I'm afraid I can't quite agree. In this movie, it's not so easy to disentangle the brilliant from the cringeworthy.
The uncomfortable truth about The Birth of a Nation is that it's at its best when it's at its worst—that the "acceptable" parts are usually sentimental and dull, while the vilest segments retain a weird power, as though the filmmaker's deepest anxieties were pouring directly onto the screen. Those zombie arms reaching into the cabin; the freedman Gus, "a product of the vicious doctrines spread by the carpetbaggers," lusting after two young white girls; and, most famous, Griffith's horrified vision of a South Carolina legislature dominated by blacks and yankees. They drink while they work, they put their bare feet on their desks, and in one memorable moment, after passing a bill legalizing intermarriage, they leer at some terrified white women. It's an awful sequence. It's also much more memorable than anything in the first act.
Despite such scenes, some defenders of Griffith have tried to rebuff the charge of racism, usually by pointing to his other movies. The favorite counterexample is Intolerance, his mad, sprawling 1916 epic made in response to the protests provoked by The Birth of a Nation. But the "intolerance" of that film's title doesn't really have anything to do with race relations; despite the common claim that Griffith made it as an act of atonement, he wasn't standing up for the right of blacks to live unmolested by the KKK so much as he was standing up for his own right to make movies unmolested by the NAACP. Other Griffith fans will point, more plausibly, to his 1919 effort Broken Blossoms, a.k.a. The Chink and the Child—a Who Is The Real Monster? tale of the sort that would later transfix horror and science-fiction audiences, with a Chinaman in the role of the outcast but sympathetic Other.
But even if you accept those interpretations of the director's later work, it's hard to ignore the racial stereotypes, the revulsion toward miscegenation, and the pro-Klan sentiments of The Birth of a Nation. Griffith's attitudes toward race may be complicated, but his most famous film's attitudes are not.
A more believable defense argues that race isn't the source of the fears in The Birth of a Nation but a convenient vessel for exploring other anxieties. Working from racist source material—Thomas Dixon's novel and play The Clansman—Griffith produced a movie in which bestial blacks threaten the virtue of an innocent young woman and mobs of freedmen unleash anarchy in the streets. Working from different material—a creaky melodrama called The Two Orphans—he produced the 1921 French Revolution film Orphans of the Storm, my favorite of his features, in which a bestial Frenchman threatens the virtue of an innocent young woman and mobs of revolutionaries unleash anarchy in the streets. Birth of a Nation's racism might be secondary to a more general fear of social disorder, and to the notion that, as Richard Schickel put it in D.W. Griffith: An American Life, "innocence must, almost inevitably, be brutally despoiled." The second aversion is magnified by the camera's transparently sexual interest in Griffith's innocent heroines. (Like that other sentimentalist of the silent era, Charlie Chaplin, Griffith had a passion for teenage women.)
If you'd like to peer directly into an artist's anxious psyche, you need only watch the two most powerful scenes in Orphans of the Storm. One is a decadent aristocratic bacchanal; the other is a chaotic riot. One is filled with resentment of the rich; the other, fear of the poor. It's like writing hysteria with Lightning.
Put another way, it's like the best work of another controversial auteur: Ed Wood. That is, I realize, a counterintuitive conclusion. If Griffith is remembered as the man who invented film grammar, then Wood is remembered as the man who never managed to master it. Many critics consider Griffith the greatest director of all time; Wood is regularly derided as the worst. His most infamous movies, 1953's Glen or Glenda and 1959's Plan 9 from Outer Space, feature surreal dialogue, bizarrely inappropriate imagery, and—in the case of Glen or Glenda—an impassioned defense of the director's transvestism and one of the most extraordinary dream sequences ever put on celluloid.
Wood's fans frequently describe his movies as "so bad, they're good"; the Wood enthusiast's usual defense of his passion is that the director may be inept, but at least he never made a movie that's boring. But Wood did make boring movies—titles like Jail Bait and Necromania that only hardcore fans of cult cinema seek out and even fewer finish. Something clearly separates such unwatchable flicks from his two most famous pictures, both of which have devoted followings and enjoy regular revival screenings. I submit that it's the same thing that separates the liveliest moments of Intolerance and Orphans of the Storm from Griffith's more plodding pictures, like the indescribably dull biopic Abraham Lincoln; the same thing that separates the sentimental sections of The Birth of a Nation from the wilder, more paranoid parts. Wood's most famous films have more going for them than mere ineptitude; they do not violate film grammar so much as they create a private grammar of their own. They are outsider art. Like a Howard Finster painting—or a D.W. Griffith movie—each feels like a window into one man's eccentric mind.
Griffith is remembered for his epic spectacles, but his greater legacy is that he was the first man to make a truly personal feature film. It may sound like faint praise to say that he paved the way for Ed Wood, but I mean it as a high compliment.