Griffith was known as one of the first “actor’s directors.” In a day when stage actors were the true celebrities and film actors were often treated as cogs in a machine, Griffith made film actors artists of their medium. Much of his camera innovation was designed to make film more effective, more humane, and therefore more cooperative with the actors. Griffith scheduled six weeks of rehearsals into the preproduction of The Birth of a Nation at a time when actors normally showed up with little idea of what they were going to do and were shouted through their motions on set. Lillian Gish was already a stage actress when Griffith “discovered” her for film. The two worked together on many shorts before The Birth of a Nation. Early silent film acting drew its techniques from the stage, with broad, obvious gestures that were meant to be seen by everyone in the audience no matter how far away they were seated. But this acting didn’t work on film. Griffith’s close-ups allowed for more subtle expressions of gesture.
None of the film’s prominent black roles were played by black actors, but instead by white actors in blackface who were painted with burnt cork. From the birth of cinema, American film has popularized and reproduced predominant stereotypes and perceptions that are held by society. Griffith purposely exploited as many of these stereotypes as possible in The Birth of a Nation. Black performers were forced into a narrow range of types, so they attempted to create complex characters within the confines of the roles they were given. Many of the black actors who worked on the film rose above stereotypes by creating resilience, humor, and humanity in their characters. This early struggle, encapsulating the historical and contemporary challenge of race relations, was the beginning of black cultural identity in American cinema.
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