1: The Birth of a Nation
This is the one most people cite as enormously important to movie history and also one of the most despicable movies ever made. Calling it “great” may not be entirely accurate, as by now it’s so terribly dated that most people I’ve talked to who have tried to watch it can’t make it through the entire 3 hours of silent, black and white action. But its significance is undeniable, pioneering many of the elements we now take for granted as norms of cinematic narrative-making including camera movement, color tinting, musical scoring, all these things we now associate with the standards of filmmaking. It was essentially the first to combine these in a cohesively effective way. I’ll take the experts word for it that it was, for its time, one of the greatest films ever made.
The problem is that it’s racist, just horribly, horribly racist. I’m not sure how it could have been not racist given that it’s based on a book called The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. Seems pretty destined for racism to me. It basically rewrites American history so that the only thing that restored order to the United States after black people selfishly launched a Civil War was the honor and dignity and bravery of the KKK. That’s all really messed up. Oh, and the black characters are played by white men in blackface. Quentin Tarantino’s KKK scenes in Django Unchained are his way of flipping off director DW Griffith for contributing Birth of a Nation to the world. I’m less conflicted about how I feel about this movie probably because I’m too far removed from the time period and unable to relate to just how revolutionary it was when it was made. All I can see in it is the racism, and all I hear are my own thoughts about how racist it is. So maybe it doesn’t neatly fit the spirit of the list as I imagined it, but it has to be mentioned in any discussion of great-yet-wow-that-is-seriously-awful movies.
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