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IB Film - Case Studies
Birth of a Nation
Director David Wark Griffith 

Released in 1915 

Country: USA 

Genre: Drama, History, Romance, War, Western 

Synopsis: The first half of the film begins before the Civil War, explaining the introduction of slavery to America before jumping into battle. Two families, the northern Stonemans and the Southern Camerons, are introduced. The story is told through these two families and often their servants, epitomizing the worst racial stereotypes. As the nation is torn apart by war, the slaves and their abolitionist supporters are seen as the destructive force behind it all. 

 

  

 
In its explicitly caricaturist presentation of the KKK as heroes and Southern blacks as villains and violent rapists and threats to the social order, it appealed to white Americans who subscribed to the mythic, romantic view (similar to Sir Walter Scott historical romances) of the Old Plantation South. Many viewers were thrilled by the love affair between Northern and Southern characters and the climactic rescue scene. The film also thematically explored two great American issues: inter-racial sex and marriage, and the empowerment of blacks. Ironically, although the film was advertised as authentic and accurate, the film's major black roles in the film -- including the Senator's mulatto mistress, the mulatto politican brought to power in the South, and faithful freed slaves -- were stereotypically played and filled by white actors - in blackface. 

Its pioneering technical work, often the work of Griffith's under-rated cameraman Billy Bitzer, includes many techniques that are now standard features of films, but first used in this film. Griffith brought all of his experience and techniques to this film from his earliest short films at Biograph, including the following: " the use of ornate title cards " special use of subtitles graphically verbalizing imagery " its own original musical score written for an orchestra " the introduction of night photography (using magnesium flares) " the use of outdoor natural landscapes as backgrounds " the definitive usage of the still-shot " elaborate costuming to achieve historical authenticity and accuracy " many scenes innovatively filmed from many different and multiple angles " the technique of the camera "iris" effect (expanding or contracting circular masks to either reveal and open up a scene, or close down and conceal a part of an image) " the use of parallel action and editing in a sequence (Gus' attempted rape of Flora, and the KKK rescues of Elsie from Lynch and of Ben's sister Margaret) " extensive use of color tinting for dramatic or psychological effect in sequences " moving, traveling or "panning" camera tracking shots " the effective use of total-screen close-ups to reveal intimate expressions " beautifully crafted, intimate family exchanges " the use of vignettes seen in "balloons" or "iris-shots" in one portion of a darkened screen " the use of fade-outs and cameo-profiles (a medium closeup in front of a blurry background) " the use of lap dissolves to blend or switch from one image to another " high-angle shots and the abundant use of panoramic long shots " the dramatization of history in a moving story - an example of an early spectacle or epic film with historical costuming and many historical references (e.g., Mathew Brady's Civil War photographs) " impressive, splendidly-staged battle scenes with hundreds of extras (made to appear as thousands) " extensive cross-cutting between two scenes to create a montage-effect and generate excitement and suspense (e.g., the scene of the gathering of the Klan) " expert story-telling, with the cumulative building of the film to a dramatic climax

Yoon-Jee Kim

 
 

  

   

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