Mankind, engaging in war, driven by whatever instincts guide him, seeks to keep the defeats and victories of battle in his memory and on his conscience. To accomplish this, men have used paint and canvas, ink and paper, or instrument and song in their effort to communicate the tragedy and glory of war.
Never, before the career of D.W. Griffith had anyone attempted to bring the subject to film. The result of his efforts, weaknesses aside, mark a change in attitude towards film as a media.
Perhaps audiences previously going to a picture expected emotional manipulation. After all, years before the film Birth of a nation, the makers of the film employed techniques to evoke pathos from viewers; whether through the use of a sobbing mother, a frightened child, or what have you.
In this respect the film was not a ground-breaker; However, through its effective use of devices such as symbolism, foreshadowing, and allusions, as well as building on and arguably perfecting film techniques such as continuity editing, intercutting, and close-ups, he transformed film from mere entertainment to art and propaganda.
To present and explore a theme, symbolism is used everywhere in literature. Whether the image is subtle or obvious it is regardless a sign of considerable calculation and effort. In Birth of a nation, Griffith places symbols everywhere, in doing this he merges literary devices of written works with his own visual works.
For instance, the parched corn symbol in the scene where the southern army is eating symbolizes their desperation in the face of defeat. This imagery proves that Griffith wasn’t just presenting actors and a plot, he intended to dig far deeper than that, into the realm of a clever storyteller.
Another example of his unique style is the use of foreshadowing, another literary device now commonly employed in the film. The most prominent example of this is the scene where two gentlemen are talking, and as the camera pans down, we see a puppy struggling with a kitten. This is another strong example of symbolism; however, even more importantly it foreshadows the coming war.
It is expertly placed to add to the building tension between sides which the audience already knows results in confrontation. Its placement reflects Griffith’s desire to advance the complexity and diversity of film beyond entertainment to higher levels in society.
To manipulate his audience’s emotions, he first had to draw them into the story and in turn into the stories underlying theme. He accomplished this by using numerous virgin film tools, much as an artist uses his own tools to create a believable painting. Among these tools, he uses panoramas to illustrate the setting, to paint, if you will – a moving picture.
To show the swell of heated gunfire on a crowded battlefield i.e.the scene of the battle of Petersburg, or to bring across an image of the delicate beauty of his native southern land to those who had never been there or seen a picture of it. This was the substance that transformed the film into a genuine art form.
Once he had the attention and anticipation of the audience, as well as their almost guaranteed acceptance of his word, he merely had to feed them an easily grasped, recognizable message to sway their emotions his way.
This method of classic propaganda was used to fuel the audience’s already considerable ill-founded hatred of blacks. It comes in the form of a rebel black group who terrorizes the Cameron family, the film’s main characters.
By placing blacks in this position it isn’t difficult to imagine the reaction of an average theatergoer. The film spawned riots, fired up racism, built stronger the negative stereotypes of blacks. It portrayed them as lazy, as illustrated in the black parliament, where a man rests his bare feet on a desk, alluding to uselessness in the employment environment.
More horrifyingly than that it portrayed them as ultimately evil with the seizing of Cameron’s home and the attempted rape of one of their daughters. The obvious bias presented, although appalling, demonstrates just how effective Griffith was at utilizing film, not with the intention to merely entertain, but to spread propaganda and affect the perceptions of society itself.
Griffith exploited his audience, he turned them against minorities and themselves. The film Birth of a nation exemplifies ignorance and hate at its worst. Although it stands for something that today is looked at as morally wrong, it proves by this very reaction that the film is not just mere entertainment, but something with a far more serious purpose.
Since Griffith was the first to accomplish something of this nature, the Birth of a nation, therefore, marks the transformation of film from pure entertainment into art and propaganda.