As an amateur film buff--seeing as I don't get paid for my film buffing--I figured it was about time I reviewed one of the earliest feature length films ever made--D.W. Griffiths' "Birth of a Nation." This film has been roundly criticized for its glorification of the Ku Kux Klan and negative portrayals of blacks, but it has also been praised for its artisticness. As I've only so far seen half the film (it clocks in at a total of 3 hours and seven minutes!) I'll only comment on the first half here.
The film was made in 1915, before the U.S. even entered the First World War, so of course it was a silent film. As such, you can really notice a difference in the acting (besides the lack of sound) in that the actors have to be more expressive and more has to be portrayed visually. In doing this--framing scenes, developing plot, etc.--Griffiths has done an excellent job and pulls you into the story.
The story begins on the eve of the Civil War, portraying a family of antislavery radicals and a family of southern plantation owners, bonded by the friendship of their respective sons. As war breaks out, Griffiths does a fine job portraying the futility of war, with friends recognizing one another on the battlefield and rows of soldiers being mowed down senselessly. Likely this was the first antiwar film, and interesting in that it was also the first film screened at the White House--it was highly praised by Woodrow Wilson (who, having grown up in Virginia during the Civil War, was very sympathetic to the Confederacy) who at the time of the film was trying to get the U.S. involved in the First World War.
The beginning of the film doesn't appear particularly controversial, except that the slaves were depicted as generally happy in their position and many were in fact portrayed by white actors in blackface. As the second half is going to cover the Reconstruction Era, the controversial section awaits...