The film is legendary for not only it's contribution to cinema, but for it's abhorrent racism. It's a difficult line that many film historians and fans walk. Do you laud the racist film for how great it is technically? Or do you condemn the entire thing for it's misguided plot? I think most people tend to fall somewhere in the middle - before they write about how many new and interesting things it did, they attack the plot. For me, I feel similar. I have a hard time stomaching the racism, but I do understand how huge on an impact it had on modern film. It is great for it's technical aspects, not at all for it's plot - and I have to sort of take the movie for what it is, however personally uncomfortable I might feel.
The film is about the civil war, and covers how a southern family and a northern family cope. It also is about, as you can tell from the art, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Most of the black characters are just white actors in really poorly done blackface, and the Klan ends up looking heroic and grand. The KKK was pretty much meh in 1915, but after Griffith's film, it was reborn. The movie was actually used in their recruitment, well into the 1970's. It's disturbing to think about, but you do have to realize that no one watches this movie anymore for the plot.
It makes us feel uncomfortable because it confronts us with America's past. We don't often want to go back to the days of slavery, but it is a reality. Many people were always disgusted by it and fought against it, but it existed. Ebert writes of the film, "Griffith demonstrated to every filmmaker and moviegoer who followed him what a movie was, and what a movie could be. That this achievement was made in a film marred by racism should not be surprising. As a nation once able to reconcile democracy with slavery, America has a stain on its soul; to understand our history we must begin with the contradiction that the Founding Fathers believed all men (except black men) were created equal" (Great Movies II, 62).
He also goes on to say, "To understand "The Birth of a Nation" we must first understand the difference between what we bring to the film, and what the film brings to us. All serious moviegoers must sooner or later arrive at a point where they see a film for what it is, and not simply for what they feel about it. "The Birth of a Nation" is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s “The Triumph of the Will,” it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil" (Great Movies II, 62).
As a "serious movie person", I get what he's saying. I don't hate The Birth of a Nation, because I love movies, and I appreciate what innovations it brought to film. Insert shots, closeups, intercut scenes, huge aerial battle scenes - these were new things that he gave us. I think it's easy to see a lot of negative in the plot of the movie, but for me, I try to think about what it can teach us. It shows us our past, although ugly. It shows us a lot about cinema. It also shows us a lot about who we are now. That this movie is "unacceptably racist" is a testament to how far we have come. We shouldn't edit our history to make ourselves feel better, but we can look it at as a way to prove to us how much change we can make. How things can get better, and we can affect the attitudes of others.
I know that this movie still won't be for everyone. There are many topics that I find to be emotionally triggering, and I can't bring myself to watch some of the movies that deal with those topics. I completely, from the bottom of my heart, understand those who might feel emotionally triggered by this film, and it's ok to not want to watch it. Plus, there are plenty of people who are fine to just read about what contributions it made and skip watching the epic-length film. Like I said, I like the movie, for what it contributed. I don't know if I can recommend it, though. If you want to learn about American and film history, go for it! You will come away with a lot of new information and thoughts. Otherwise, I don't know that it works. There are other silent movies I would rather you watch, ones that are very enjoyable and fun. There are other movies, period, that I think are more beneficial to one's mind to watch.
Ugh! This is too complicated for a Friday night!
Above all, please read Roger Ebert's essay on The Birth of a Nationwatch the film, you'll learn a lot.
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on The Birth of a Nation
The film is public domain, so it's available on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and even IMDB.