The Oscar Project
There is no good way to say it really, but this week was a tough one for the challenge. The category this week was a Controversial Film, so it should be something that creates some discussion and hopefully you found something that made you think about the world. If you need to review the list I provided earlier in the week, check out the preview post from this past Sunday.
Now, on to the film I choose this week.
The Birth of a Nation is the oldest film I’ve watched so far this year, and if my current plan holds, the oldest film I will watch for the challenge in 2023. It’s the oldest film by far that I’ve watched in some time, excepting some of the very early experimental films made by the Lumiere Brothers and Thomas Edison in the early days of film.
But what is The Birth of a Nation and why is it so controversial?
The film is based on a novel by Thomas Dixon Jr. called The Clansman. You can probably guess at the content based on that title, but I’ll outline it at the high level. The film is split into two parts, the first taking place during the American Civil War. Two families, the abolitionist Stonemans from the North and the “Old South” Camerons, are intertwined in a manner a bit reminiscent of the Capulets and Montagues, with sons from each family falling in love with daughters from the other. Sons from both families are killed in the war and while young Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) leads a charge in his final battle, he is wounded and captured, leading to the announcement that he will be hanged. Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish), whom he was in love with, finds him and helps set up a meeting with President Lincoln to ask for a pardon for Ben.
The film famously depicts the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865 and feels like a scene placed in the film to add a bit of publicity to the story. It’s certainly not required for the rest of the events of the film, and actually serves as a bit of a distraction from the events before and after. That said, it does close off the first half of the film.
That second half is where the real controversial parts show up. As the story moves to the Reconstruction Era, the Stonemans move to South Carolina to observe the Reconstruction policies being implemented and of course run into the Camerons again. Stoneman bring along his protégé, Silas Lynch, who is described as a mulatto and Lynch is elected lieutenant governor with strong support from the black community. An overwhelmingly black state legislature is depicted with extremely racial stereotypes which I won’t outline here. You might think that is enough to rate as controversy, but you’d be very wrong.
Ben Cameron comes back into the picture here as he establishes the Ku Klux Klan as a way to fight back against the sudden power the blacks have received in the state. Elsie leaves Ben as a result, and in one of the more famous sequences of the film, Cameron’s little sister Flora (Mae Marsh) goes exploring in the woods only to be accosted by a local freedman named Gus (Walter Long in blackface). She ends up leaping off a ledge to her death and when Ben sees this with Gus fleeing the scene, he rounds up his Klan friends who help him capture and lynch Gus.
This action prompts Lieutenant Governor Lynch to crack down on the Klansmen. The ending of the film devolves into several battles between these various factions, with some combination of the Stonemans and Camerons stuck in the middle. Ultimately Lynch is captured and the Klansmen emerge victorious celebrating through town leading to a new election, now defended by the Klan which will not allow any blacks to vote.
There is a title card right near the end of the film that longs for a time when war will no longer be a scourge on the land, but it can live in peace and harmony, an odd sentiment from a film entirely about the ravages of war, even those that stay behind when the official fighting has stopped.
Now, there is plenty to unpack there and I don’t have time here to fully do so, but if you’re interested, there have been plenty of words already written about this film throughout the last 108 years. What I will say about it is that while I understand its place in cinema history, there is too much going against the film to really recommend it to anyone other than an extremely niche audience of civil war buffs and hardcore cinephiles.
So, let’s start with the things this film got right. It is rightly praised for introducing a number of innovations in the use of film technology to tell a story. Keep in mind that when the film was made, motion pictures as an art form had only been around for about 20 years. Yes, there were animated images before 1895, but the first true projected images as we know them today hadn’t been around that long. Director D. W. Griffith used this film to pioneer techniques such as tracking shots, using close-ups and fadeouts, and even the carefully staged battles sequences like we see in war films like Saving Private Ryan, 1917, or the recent All Quiet on the Western Front. There is a tremendous amount of editing throughout with the action cutting between scenes in different locations, often telling multiple stories at the same time. I’m not sure if it was part of the original film, but the version I watched also had different color gradations in the film depending on where a given scene was taking place or who was in the scene. Internal shots were often yellowish with nighttime shots tinted blue or green and battle scenes highlighted by a red tint.
This is all to say that many of the moviemaking techniques we take for granted today, didn’t exist before Griffith used them in this film. For that, we owe a great deal to this film, despite all its flaws.
Unfortunately, those flaws are many. Some are simply a result of when the film was made while others can only be chalked up to Griffith’s choices and the source material that he used for the film. Chief among these is the general treatment of blacks in the film. While there are some black actors used in certain sequences, the majority of the black characters are portrayed by white actors in blackface. While it might seem shocking to audiences today, this practice was still commonly in use in films through the 1920s and can famously be seen in the first “talkie”, The Jazz Singer, where actor Al Jolson performs on stage in blackface. The use of this practice is especially galling given the fact that some of the background black characters are black actors, but the one that feature in the plot are all white actors in blackface. Even the mixed-race Lynch is clearly a white actor with almost no effort to make him look otherwise.
Beyond the blackface element, there is of course the inclusion of Ku Klux Klan which led to an increase in Klan activity following the release of the film. According to my brief research on this, the Klan was largely defunct by 1872 and as such lay dormant until The Birth of a Nation burst on the scene. The fact that this film is largely credited with the rebirth of the Klan, serves as multiple demerits against it.
The two items discussed above are reason enough to downgrade this film, even in light of the technical advances it made, but if we go back to those advances, even some things there detracted from the overall film. First, looking back at the editing techniques that were pioneered, including cross-cutting between multiple locations to tell several storylines at once. While it was revolutionary at the time, I honestly don’t think it was executed particularly well. Perhaps that is due to the fact that it was the first time anyone was trying this approach, but it often feels like Griffith had this brilliant new idea of how to tell a story and ended up overusing it in this film.
Another major negative point for the film is the overall length. At well over three hours, this is a lot of film to sit through and I can’t help thinking that 90% of the sequences could be half as long as they are. The battle scenes are impressive for the time in which they were created, but they drag on. The famous scene of Gus chasing Flora through the woods lasts well over 20 minutes, something that could have been covered in half that time with more intentional shot selection.
The last major mark against the film, for me at least, is the cast of characters. Not the acting itself mind you. While it is overacted throughout, that is the fault of it being a silent film, not of the actors themselves. What I’m talking about is the sheer size of the cast in terms of who we need to pay attention to. Even with the list of cast members right at the beginning of the film, there is easily two pages of characters, none of which we’ve met at that point. The two families are so similar in their makeup, that it’s hard to tell them apart. Combine that with the fact that we can only see them visually and never hear their voices, the Stonemans and Camerons blend into one giant mass of a family. Again, this may be intentional, but it made my viewing confusing.
I’ve gone on longer about this film than any other I’ve watched for this challenge, but given how long it is and the long history the film has, I thought it worthwhile. As I mentioned above, I can’t really recommend this film to anyone outside a few select groups, but if you are someone interested in the early history of cinema, consider watching select parts of this film. The entire 193 minutes is not for everyone, but you can learn quite a bit about early film techniques from The Birth of a Nation.
I am starting off our deeper dive coverage of the films nominated for Oscars this year with a look at the three short film categories, Best Documentary Short Film, Best Animated Short Film, and Best Live Action Short Film.
I personally love these categories because you often get a wide range of stories all packed into small packages. Many of the films, especially in the animated category, are less than ten minutes long, so you can sit down and watch the entire category in less time than it takes to watch a full feature film, if you can find them that is.
That's the true struggle with these films. They rarely get released to theaters outside of film festivals, but with the rise of online streaming services and sites like Vimeo and YouTube, many of these are more accessible than ever. Out of the 15 nominees across the three short film categories, seven are readily available on YouTube, Netflix and Disney+. The remaining eight do not currently have distribution as of this writing, but may be released publicly prior to the Academy Award ceremony.
Best Documentary Short Film
With four of these five films available online, I was able to sit down and watch them back to back. I wish I could say these documentaries were uplifting and lighthearted, but with subjects ranging from anti-government protests in Hong Kong to the murder of a young girl to a WWII French Resistance fighter visiting the concentration camp where her brother died, you won't find much levity here. About the closest you'll come is the conversation between a grandfather and grandson on the eve of the younger man's concerto debut in concert.
These films are all fantastic. As I have some more time to digest them and think about them, I'm sure one or two may rise to the surface as my favorite to win the award, but right now they are all too fresh in my mind to make a pick.
Best Animated Short Film
The animated short film category is one that has been owned by Pixar shorts off and on for some time. However, as cute as "Burrow" is, I don't think it is strong enough to take home the prize this year. I say this having only seen that and "If Anything Happens I Love You," but already that film has my vote for the award. Fair warning, don't read anything about it before you watch, not even my summary below. The best way to watch that short is to go in blind.
I am hoping to get a chance to see the other three films, especially "Opera" which brings a very intriguing premise. As I am able to view them, I will update here with my thoughts as well as short reviews of each.
Best Live Action Short Film
As of this writing, I've only seen one film from this group but it is fantastic. The premise of "Feeling Through" is truly unique and once again, I went in knowing very little of what it was about.
I am also intrigued to see "The Letter Room" which stars Hollywood actor Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina, Star Wars, Inside Llewyn Davis) He has been seen in a number of big budget films over the last decade or so, that I look forward to seeing what he is able to do in a short film format.
Finally, I recently heard an interview with Lawrence Bender, the producer of "Two Distant Strangers" as well as Joey Bada$$ who stars in the film. The story sounds like an intriguing look at police brutality in America mixed with a concept familiar to anyone who has seen Palm Springs (review) or Groundhog Day.
A film you like that is not set in the current era
There was plenty to choose from when I picked this category, but I had to go with a film that I absolutely love, and I have seen probably two dozen times or more over the years. It’s one of those that I usually watch to the end whenever it comes on TV, which sometimes takes up several hours of my afternoon/evening/night.
I have to say, this film is one of the best I’ve seen when it comes to immersing the audience in the time period and the world it exists in. From the opening sequence in Germania, we are thrust into a gritty hellscape of how war was waged two thousand years ago, give or take a century or two. The opening battle is brutal, and they don’t get any tamer from there.
It’s easy to say that the battle and fight scenes are some of the best parts of Gladiator, yet I find many of the best parts are in the quiet intimate moments between the chaos. The personal interaction between Russell Crowe’s Maximus and his owner Proximo (Oliver Reed) about how he can win the crowd and potentially win his freedom is one of those moments. Another is Maximus’s interaction with the young prince Lucius before one of his fights. He speaks with the boy I think because he sees his own dead son in the boy and wants to connect with someone that age once again. And speaking of his son, one of the most incredible scenes is when Maximus returns to his farm to find his wife and son dead. The anguish that Crowe displays is part of the reason he was crowned Best Actor by the Academy for his work in the film.
The film also won an Oscar for Best Costume Design, and this goes back to my initial point about immersing you in the world. There are thousands of costumes in this film that make you feel like you are in ancient Rome. Everything is here from the obvious gladiator gear, to the soldiers in the army, the simple robes of the senators, and the elaborate robes of the royalty. The last time we were watching the film, my wife and I both remarked that Lucilla’s (Connie Nielsen) costumes are some of the most beautiful in the film and fit her character perfectly.
But the costumes alone don’t make this film feel like a part of history. There are plenty of scenes in the markets, the countryside, and of course, in the gladiatorial arenas themselves. The way the story progresses, Maximus fights his way through several lesser arenas throughout the Roman Empire, before venturing to Rome itself and competing in the Super Bowl of gladiatorial arenas, The Colosseum. It’s quite a scene when Maximus and his fellow slaves see the edifice for the first time and once they get inside, it’s hard to distinguish where the live replica of the building ends and the digital version begins.
All in all, Gladiator is a fantastic film. Yes, there are some historical inaccuracies, but you get that with any film based on historical events. That’s the beauty of film. It’s a chance to tell a story set in a real time and place, but with some elements of fiction woven in. It’s hard to say that there are no wasted shots in a film that stretches over two and a half hours, but I feel that this is about as close as one might come, with nearly every moment on screen contributing to and moving the story forward.
Take a moment this holiday weekend and visit ancient Rome in Gladiator. You won’t regret it.
Day 24 – A film you wish you saw in theaters | Day 26 – A film you like that is adapted front somewhere
I'm just a film buff who wants to watch great movies. Where else to find the best, than the list of those nominated by the Academy each year?