“Silent film has left a legacy of bizarrely colorful images preserved in the popular mind by nostalgia. Yet in the early days of the primitive film industry, the cinema treated social problems in a way that was, ironically, as fantastic as the glamorous stars and tinsel world of Hollywood’s later silver screen,” (Ross, 43).
The establishment of the cinema does not start with D.W. Griffith’s masterwork The Birth of a Nation (1915). However, The Birth of a Nation became the most widely acclaimed and financially successful film of the entire silent era,” and has since become the watermark for film studies beginnings (May, 67). The film definitively stands out as a landmark in the visual arts that brought about the modern photoplay and a long history of interaction between the cinema and politics. By the time Griffith created his films, “movies were already the best form of cheap entertainment,” (Czitrom, 538). D. W. Griffith is also responsible for the creation of another film, Intolerance (1916), which illustrates the use of cinema as a tool for addressing social problems through allegory. The former film has left a much greater mark on history than the latter, but both will be considered in how history shapes and is shaped by cinema since the art-form’s advent.
Film has a fantastic ability to promote understanding of “the relationship between our historical experience and the means and modes through which we attempt to remember, reconstruct, and forget it, and otherwise orient ourselves in relation to it. Historians and social scientist recently have come to appreciate the extent to which diverse media and means of expression—journalism, newsreels, and movies—were involved in concealing as much about the real nature of…the conflict[s]…that spawned them,” (Williams, 30). This said, “A film is a work of art. It is not meant to be a mimetic replica or depiction of reality,” (Williams, 41). Though film is art, it is rather dangerous to dismiss it simply as such, considering the power it has to communicate with wide audiences. There is always a perspective or ideology to be considered in viewing a film, whether historical or strictly entertainment. Yet, they are also documents of history in themselves, displaying moments, ideas, and visions from another time. “In their documentary effects and social range, these founding motion pictures make a claim for film as history. Their representational aspirations point less to historical accuracy than to the politics that produced these movies, their ideological world views,” (Rogin, 2). Thus, each film can be regarded as a work of art and a source of historical knowledge about the people who made it and the time in which they lived. Considering the many lines of meaning communicated within a project, opens up the work for study on just as many levels. For example, politically driven films “relied on the happy ending, which provided audiences with continuity and faith in the system. Even actual historical events were rewritten to accommodate that expectation,” (Ross, 50). To what purpose would a filmmaker want to create their art in such a manner? There are several answers to the question: to make more money off the finished product, to use the power of film to influence, to promote themselves as a team player and receive the accolades that come with such cooperation, or a combination of these and other reasons.