D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" plays as a strange and troubling artifact, a grainy, flickering work of artistic brilliance whose images are at once breathtaking and repugnant.
With sweeping shots and intimate close-ups, the 1915 silent film heralded the future of cinema, but its abhorrent depiction of African Americans and celebration of the Ku Klux Klan reawakened virulent strains in the nation's violent racial history.
The movie baffles, enthralls, angers and mystifies. It was the fusing of a thrilling new art form with primitive instincts. Its revolutionary cinematography, editing, narrative range, battle scenes and sprawling cast mesmerized audiences and inspired generations of filmmakers. It was also searing propaganda that revitalized the Klan and roused prejudices that echo today in police shootings of black men, outrage over affirmative action and furor over whether we must rise for the national anthem.