Can something be simultaneously genius and vilely racist? This is the question posed by D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film Birth of a Nation. Silent film star Mary Pickford called it the first movie that made people take the motion picture industry seriously. The film debuted in a politically charged atmosphere, full of anti-immigrant bias, racial tensions, and fear of danger from abroad.
Birth of a Nation is “probably the most perfectly produced spectacle that has yet to be seen on screen,” the Washington Times said March 1, 1915, “and one of the most comprehensive historical dramas that have been produced anywhere.”
The movie was based on the novel and play The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr. and part of a second Dixon novel, The Leopard’s Spots. The plot follows the lives of two families – the Stonemans from the North and the Camerons from the South – during the American Civil War and Reconstruction. African-Americans are portrayed as shiftless and immoral and a threat to the “helpless white minority” and white womanhood while the Ku Klux Klan is the hero of civilization.
A Kentucky native, Griffith was the son of a Confederate colonel and shared Dixon’s belief that Reconstruction had been detrimental to the South.
The film was an audience favorite, and prompted Ku Klux Klan-themed products and costume balls. It also prompted price gouging. Ticket prices were $2.20 a ticket – $51.50 in today’s money – in a day and age when the average ticket cost 5-15 cents, but moviegoers lined up for blocks for their chance to see the groundbreaking film.
It was the first blockbuster, making as much as $5.2 million by 1919, according to some reports, and making Dixon the first author to become rich from a film adaptation. It was the highest grossing film of all time until 1937 when it was surpassed by Snow White and Seven Dwarfs.
Lillian Gish, who played Elsie Stoneman, said, “They lost track of the money it made.”
Griffith: Cinematic Genius
“Racial depictions aside, The Birth of a Nation is a landmark film whose achievements and pioneering techniques remain fully relevant today,” the film’s listing on review-aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes says.
The three-hour film was produced in seven months for $500,000. It maintained the title The Clansman until its Feb. 8 Los Angeles premiere.
It established the length of a feature film, and its new cinematic techniques wowed audiences. These techniques included night photography, color tinting, panning camera shots, fading out, using hundreds of extras, and having historically accurate costumes and sets.
Griffith “did things that hadn’t been done before in terms of close-up, zooming the camera in on faces, crosscutting in dramatic Civil War battle scenes, not just taking a single, static shot — all of which heightened the power, the impact, the drama, the emotion,” author Dick Lehr told NPR.
Griffith was among the first directors to film in Southern California and was the first to utilize screen testing.
Birth of a Nation is the foundation of modern cinema, cinematic arts professor Todd Boyd says, although he will not show the film in his classes.
The film also is one of the first to have a full-length score written for it. The sheet music was distributed to cinemas for use by whoever played the piano or organ.
White House Screening
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was classmates with Dixon at John Hopkins University. Dixon arranged for Wilson, his cabinet and their families to screen Birth of a Nation. This marked one of the first times a film was screened at the White House.
Wilson is falsely quoted as having said the film is “so terribly true.” This claim was refuted by Wilson’s press security Joseph Tumulty, and historians think it was Dixon who fabricated the president’s comments. Movie critic Roger Ebert, however, believed Wilson did say it but felt the need to deny it when critics attacked the film. Wilson later said Birth of a Nation was an unfortunately production.
Whatever Wilson’s exact words on the night of the screening, he did write in A History of the American People that laws passed during Reconstruction “put the white south under the heel of the black south.” These laws forced the population to react, and “there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.”
Dixon also arranged screenings for the Supreme Court justices and several members of Congress.
Controversial Film Release
Even by 1915 standards, Birth of a Nation was considered racist. The NAACP tried in block the film’s release in many cities without much success. And photos of actors in blackface were never included in the film’s promotional materials.
“In spite of the promise of the mayor to cut out the two objectionable scenes in the second part, which show a white girl committing suicide to escape from a Negro pursuer, and a mulatto politician trying to force marriage upon the daughter of his white benefactor, these two scenes still form the motif of the really unimportant incidents, of which I enclose a list,” NAACP national secretary Mary Childs Nerney said in April 1915 “I have seen the thing four times and am positive that nothing more will be done about it.”
It wasn’t just African-Americans who protested the film. Many whites did as well.
“The producer seems to have followed the principle of gathering the most vicious and grotesque individuals he could find among colored people, and showing them as representatives of the truth about the entire race,” social worker Jane Addams told the New York Evening Post in March 1915. “It is both unjust and untrue. The same method could be followed to smirch the reputation of any race. For instance, it would be easy enough to go about the slums of a city and bring together some of the criminals and degenerates and take pictures of them purporting to show the character of the white race. It would no more be the truth about the white race than this is about the black.”
In Boston, a demonstration organized by civil rights activist William Monroe Trotter resulted in a riot.
“Shall we fight for existence, or shall we not exist because we are black?” Dr. Alice McKane said at a Boston meeting of African-American women April 25, 1915. “I say fight, fight until the last drop of blood is gone. We are not fighting as black people but as American citizens. We want Birth of a Nation removed from the city of Boston and we propose to see it go. If we cannot get rid of it by fair means, we will get rid of it by foul.”
Reemergence of the Klan
Eventually, the film was banned in some cities as well as eight states in an attempt to prevent violence.
Several films were made to counter Birth of a Nation’s message, including Griffith’s 1916 Intolerance, 1919’s The Birth of a Race, Broken Blossoms and The Homesteader and 1920’s Within Our Gates.
But it was too little too late to counterbalance the view that Reconstruction was horrible and the Ku Klux Klan was the savior of white civilization. The KKK was revived in November 1915 and a decade later had 5 million members. The group would become so popular, it paraded in Washington D.C. twice in the 1920s, each time drawing about 50,000 members and countless onlookers.
“Oh say not so,” one Maryland newspaper said of the nation, “quivering in excited anticipation of 100,000 ghostly apparitions wafting through the streets of the national capital to the stirring strains of the ‘Liberty Stable Blues.'”
Updated: 27 October 2020
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