“A Plea For The Art of the Motion Picture: We do not fear censorship, for we have no wish to offend with improprieties or obscenities, but we do demand, as a right, the liberty to show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue—the same liberty that is conceded to the art of the written word—that art to which we owe the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.”
Griffith addresses his audience with this lofty and hefty intertitle at the beginning of the film. With it, he attempts to contextualize and defend his efforts before the film’s action begins. He displays passion for the artistic potential of film here, and indeed he did more than any other director of the time to push the art form’s limits. Though not an unwarranted plea on behalf of the blossoming medium, especially coming from one of its most noteworthy practitioners, it was unnecessary—the best plea would have been simply a stunning and moving film that demonstrated the art of the motion picture. By placing his film in the context of canonical written works that have held up over the passing of centuries, Griffith egotistically asserts his own film’s worthiness. The unreeling of the film shows that the “dark side of wrong” comprises opportunist Northern whites and black slaves who rebel against their servitude. The “bright side of virtue,” of course, consists of the Southern slave-owning gentry and the Ku Klux Klan.
“The bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion.”
With this plain and bold intertitle, the story of the film begins. We see a white pilgrim on a platform praying over a group of hunched, bound, and confused black men in a public square. This image shows that New Englanders (i.e., Northerners) originally brought the slaves to America, causing all the subsequent problems presented by the film. The image of Northern abolitionists demanding freedom for slaves two hundred years later is an early strike at the character of the waffling North. It also sets out the simplified thesis of the film: the land was great and noble, with unlimited potential, until Africans were brought to America, precipitating our painful and calamitous dissolution into civil war. The evocative language of the intertitle suggests an infestation or an exponentially developing disease that branched out silently through the developing United States.
“On the battlefield. War claims its bitter, useless sacrifice. True to their promise, the chums meet again.”
One of the most moving sequences of The Birth of a Nation follows this intertitle and illustrates the power of Griffith’s mastery over melodramatic film structure, as well as his skill at making an epic subject intimate and personal. The final sentence laments the needless tragedy of lives cut short by war. Duke Cameron is wounded in battle and falls. A bloodthirsty Union soldier sprints over to him, preparing to deliver the fatal spike from his bayonet. But then Tod Stoneman recognizes Duke, and a great change washes over his face. We see his love for his friend and the humanity of their relationship. At that same moment, Tod is struck by a bullet. He collapses, and the two friends die in each other’s arms.
“The agony which the South endured that a nation might be born. The blight of war does not end when hostilities cease.”
Griffith introduces the second part of the film with this intertitle, following President Lincoln’s assassination. It effectively eulogizes the old South and ennobles its dignity in the face of the humiliation brought by the North. It also manages to credit the South’s perseverance and willingness to adapt as the glue that holds the new union together. Whereas Northerners planted the “seed of disunion” by bringing over the Africans, the Southerners’ great sacrifice assures that a “nation might be born.”
It also introduces a mammoth sequence of six consecutive intertitles. In the space of these titles, Griffith maintains first that he intends no reflection on any race or people of today. However, he goes on to extensively quote Woodrow Wilson’s A History of the American People, speaking of swarms from the North, insolent Negroes, and the crushing of the “white South under the heel of the black South.” The forced birth of the new “empire of the South,” the Ku Klux Klan, comes from natural survivalist instincts, a response in part to Stoneman, who is labeled “the uncrowned king.” The second part of the film begins in Stoneman’s library, teeming with debating congressional leaders, all eager to advise the new leader. When Stoneman drops his cane, pathetic congressmen scurry to pick it up for him. Borne out of the evil of Lincoln’s assassination, the lustful and shifty Silas Lynch enters.
The birth of the Ku Klux Klan follows this intertitle. Ben Cameron writhes in solitude on a scenic hill overlooking a gorgeous expanse of the South and wonders how he can free it again. His inspiration comes right around the corner in the form of two outnumbered white children scaring a group of black children by donning a white sheet. Immediately, the black children go running. Magically, the Ku Klux Klan forms fully in the space between two shots. Whereas we see all the struggles of the South as it suffers under Silas Lynch’s rule, here the solution arrives almost out of nowhere. Ben is never shown laboring to find supporters or confused about which direction to take the group.