Pictured above is a piece of concept art — undated and apparently unused — that’s currently on display in a must-see exhibit, “The Birth of Promotion: Inventing Film Publicity in the Silent-Film Era,” at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. My guess is that it’s from the 1930 reissue of “The Birth of a Nation,” and was meant to capitalize on the success of Griffith’s first talkie, the immensely successful “Abraham Lincoln” with Walter Huston.
Kino International’s superb new Blu-ray release of “BoaN” includes the spoken introductions — staged as an after-dinner between Griffith and his Lincoln, Walter Huston, in a soundstage drawing-room — in which Griffith again protests that he means no ill toward any particular ethnic group, but is simply reproducing the history of Reconstruction with no less an authority than Woodrow Wilson to back him up.
Griffith, of course, was no simple racist — he was a very complicated racist, full of contradictions (the romanticized portrait of Indian life in his early westerns) and even some hints of compassion (the rediscovered “Middle Passage” prologue from “Abraham Lincoln” is among the most harrowing depictions of the slave trade in American film). “Birth of a Nation” continues to astound and confound with its juxtaposition of the most delicate sentiment (the Little Colonel’s homecoming) and the most brutal insensitivity (the Ku Klux Klan depicted as the Jedi Knights of 1915). Whatever it is, it’s a work that demands to be seen and discussed — you can’t understand the movies, or America, without it. Here’s my review of the Kino disc in the New York Times.