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The Art of the Movies - From "The Birth of a Nation" to "Black Panther"

The New York Times, 6th June 1915 On June 6th 1915, “The New York Times” published an article by Henry MacMahon entitled “THE ART OF THE MOVIES”.

Found, 104 years later, it's title was bound to pique the interest of the Art of the Movies team.

What we read, and what it lead us to, was a fascinating episode in movie-making history...

It is 1915 and Henry McMahon is writing an article for 'the gray lady', the New York Times. The paper was first published in 1851 and is far older than the fledgling movie industry that MacMahon writes about.

Set out in two tightly typeset columns, our journalist bemoans his contemporaries' response to the new “motion pictures”. He notes that there are no canons, no rules and, in fact, very little critical agreement on anything.

The only point of agreement, he notes, is that the American movie director and producer, D.W. Griffith, is “the best ever” and that his film “The Birth of a Nation” is “by far the greatest motion picture work yet put forward”.

D.W. Griffith

David Wark (D.W.) Griffith was born in Kentucky in 1875, the son of a former Confederate Army Colonel. The early death of his father led the family in to poverty. D.W. left school early and found work in retail stores before embarking on a career as an actor and playwright.

 

A photo of D.W. Griffith

D.W. Griffith

 

Having limited success as a script writer, D.W. made money as an extra for Edison Studios and the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. It was at Biograph that fate attempted to re-balance the bad luck of his earlier life. Biograph’s main director (Wallace McCutcheon) fell ill. D.W. was given the position, leading to the short-film “The Adventures of Dollie”. That year (1908) he would direct a total of 48 short films for the company, and, would direct the first film shot in Hollywood, “In Old California” (1910).

It was on the set of “In Old California” that Griffiths coined "Lights.. Camera.. Action!", a phrase that has echoed through film-making for over a hundred years.

The Birth of a Nation

In 1915, D.W. produced the landmark, 3 hour epic, “Birth of a Nation”. This 12 reel silent megalith follows two families through the U.S. Civil War and the post-war era of Reconstruction.

 

Stills from D.W. Griffiths "The Birth of a Nation"

 

As our reporter MacMahon noted, the film attracted high praise, with the Los Angeles Times calling it “the greatest picture ever made and the greatest drama ever filmed.” The TIME film critic James Agee later stated "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, but it is also far beyond realism. It seems to me to be a realization of a collective dream of what the Civil War was like..."

The film was also an incredible box office success. Whilst estimates of its takings vary widely, it certainly appears to have been tens of millions dollars, perhaps the equivalent of billions (think ‘Avatar’ or ‘Titanic’) in today’s money.

A Movie Pioneer

Together with his cinematographer, Billy Bitzer, D.W. would redefine filming and film-making. They were the first to film with artificial lighting and soft-focus. They introduced techniques such as the flashback, the fade-out, the iris shot, the split-screen, cross-cutting, and, the close up. Together, they set the template for movies, as we know them today.

 

D.W. Griffith and Billy Bitzer

D.W. Griffith and Billy Bitzer

 

In 1936 D.W. was awarded an honorary Oscar, with the citation reading “For his distinguished creative achievements as director and producer and his invaluable initiative and lasting contributions to the progress of the motion picture arts."

In 1952, the Directors Guild of America inaugurated their life-time achievement in feature film award as the “D.W. Griffith Award”. It was subsequently awarded to such luminaries as Alfred Hitchcock (1968), Orson Welles (1984), Woody Allen (1996), Stanley Kubrick (1997) and Francis Ford Coppola (1998).

D.W. Griffith was certainly one of “the best ever”.

Controversy

Returning to our New York Times article, MacMahon continues with a treatise on the benefits of the movie as a symbolistic art form, the unique qualities it has over the written word and the spoken play; and, the great strides that director’s such as D.W. are making in exploiting the art form to the full.

But...

However big a step “The Birth of a Nation” may be in the development of the movies, McMahon actually says very little about the subject and content of the film...

“The Birth of a Nation” is based upon best-selling novels by Thomas Dixon Jr.

The film’s original name? “The Clansman”.

It portrays freed black people (many played by 'blacked up' white men) as uncouth, uncultured and sexually predatory second-class citizens, and, the Ku Klux Klan and their lynchings as a force for good.

In short, it contains highly troubling racism.

A movie poster for D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation

Unbelievably, after a White House screening (the first time this had occurred), President Wilson allegedly stated that “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.

The film is credited with triggering the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. Apparently, even in the late 20th Century, it was a recruitment tool for the same organisation.

Reassuringly, on release, the film did also receive condemnation, including some riots in the North of America and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) protesting at many city premieres of the film.

D.W. was born ten years after the end of the Civil War, towards the end of the U.S. Reconstruction era. In a 1930 interview, he conceded that the film may have been influenced by the Civil War stories of his father "Roaring Jake Griffith" and his own early years in the South.

Perhaps all art is a product of its time and its environment. Those were highly troubling times. That is not to excuse the film’s content, but, to recognise that, thankfully, it would not be made today.

Today

The highest grossing box office film of 2018 was “Black Panther”. A block-buster cinematic success hailed as ground-breaking cinema for its portrayal of black people of both American and African descent.

A one sheet movie poster for Marvel's Black Panther

It is now Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe nominated. It too will take $1 billion at the box office. It too will have a long-lasting influence on film making.

One swallow does not make a Summer, and, it may only be another step in a much longer journey, but if so, that stride is in the right direction.

We must take some pride that "Black Panther" is a product of this time and this environment.

MacMahon’s New York Times article closes with a quote from the learned Dr. E.E. Slosson, “The motion picture has established itself and in some form or other will become a permanent part of the intellectual and aesthetic life of the nation.

That prophecy was certainly correct.

 

Adam and the Art of the Movies team.

 

P.S. In 1999 the Directors Guild of America voted unanimously to rename the ‘D.W. Griffith Award’ the ‘DGA Lifetime Achievement Award for Distinguished Achievement in Motion Picture Direction’, stating that “… although Griffith was an influential and innovative filmmaker, he also helped foster intolerable racial stereotypes.”

Steven Spielberg would be the first recipient of the newly named award. 

As far as we can see, it hasn't yet been awarded to a black director.

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