I show this movie, or at least the last 40 minutes of it, to students in my classes as part of our debate on artistic freedom and censorship -- because I know I can count on it to offend them. In fact, the reason I have bought a copy of the DVD is that the department's old video copy is worn out by now from the number of times it's been used in class. By every possible moral measure, this movie is incredibly offensive, with its crude racial stereotypes, its rewriting of American history to portray white Southerners as the "victims" of Blacks who claimed their political rights as voting citizens after the Civil War, and its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. And it can't be dismissed as "just a movie," because its release had real consequences, leading to race riots, lynchings, and worst of all, the re-formation of the Klan, which had almost entirely died out before the movie was released.
And yet, as any historian of cinema can tell you, it was technically and artistically a landmark, the first movie epic, the first really ambitious effort at complex story-telling and spectacle in the new medium. Every movie epic that has been made since then owes something to this film. All of this makes for some very lively classroom discussions: should this movie still be shown to public audiences? If someone wanted to show it on this campus as part of a program on the history of cinema, would you support their right to show it, or would you protest the use of your tuition and fees for a purpose like that? Do we want to be accused of "political correctness?" Do we want to be accused of inciting to riot?
So, do I admire this movie or hate it? Well, both. That's why I split the difference between 5 stars for artistic merit and 0 stars for political irresponsibility, and averaged them out at three.