Xan Brooks summarizes the problem with The Birth of a Nation (1915), which has just been reissued in DVD and Blu-ray. D.W. Griffith's film was a faithful adaptation of a "spectacularly racist" novel. At the same time, though, the film is one of the most important movies ever made because Griffith essentially invents the modern cinema right before our eyes.
But here's the thing: The Birth of a Nation is also extraordinary in other respects. Yes, we all know that the film established the building blocks of cinema grammar (the establishing shot, the close-up, the cutaway) that mainstream directors have used ever since. But it's one thing to be told this, and quite another to see it in action. Griffith's language is so fluent, so confident, that it's hard to believe that he was essentially speaking it for the first time. I love his nimble movement around the sharecropper cabins and the way he pans from the main action to frame the dogs and the cats at the character's feet. The battle sequences, too, are astonishing, as the soldiers scurry, the corpses pile high and vast plumes of cannon smoke rip across the field.