#472) The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Directed by D.W. Griffith
Written by Griffith and Frank E. Woods. Based on the novel and play “The Clansman” by Thomas Dixon Jr.
Class of 1992
The issues raised by “The Birth of a Nation” cannot be “solved” overnight, nor extensively covered on this blog. This post is the beginning of the conversation we should be having about this movie, not the end. It should go without saying that I in no way, shape, or form endorse the KKK or any group with an ideology built on hate or bigotry.
And now, in the alleged words of Clark Gable, “Let’s get this over with.”
The Plot: The Civil War is seen from the perspective of two families, the Stonemans of the North and the Camerons of the South. The film’s first half follows both families as they send their sons off to fight, culminating with the Siege of Petersburg, followed by war’s end, and President Lincoln’s assassination. The second half shows a dramatized perversion of the Reconstruction Era. Following their freedom from slavery, African-Americans of the south seize power and begin bullying white citizens. Under this film’s viewpoint, the only solution is the foundation of the Ku Klux Klan, uniting white people against their new oppressors. Did that sentence make you cringe? Imagine three hours of that.
Why It Matters: From the NFR’s write-up: The racist and simplistic depictions of blacks [sic] in the film is difficult to overlook, but underneath the distasteful sentiment lies visual genius. Whatever you say, circa 1992 committee. Film critic David Kehr picked the short straw, and wrote an essay on the film.
But Does It Really?: “The Birth of a Nation” is even worse than you think it is. Yes, “Birth” may be the movie that elevated films to an art form, but that does not excuse the egregious amount of racism portrayed in the film. It’s “Gone with the Wind“, with even less sensitivity towards any non-Confederate viewpoint. To answer the all-important question: “Birth of a Nation” is significant enough for NFR inclusion based on its technical innovations and on-going controversy. The film should be kept available for viewing rather than being ignored (which I admit as a white male is a privileged opinion to have), but, and I can’t stress this enough, DO NOT WATCH THIS MOVIE UNLESS BY YOUR OWN CHOOSING. It should only be viewed by people genuinely curious about the film, and willing to stomach its offensive subject matter. “Birth of a Nation” is deeply problematic, but it is an important reminder of what we as a nation were willing to accept as popular entertainment, and how this film’s legacy has continued to harm our African-American communities.
Wow, That’s Dated: Unsurprisingly, this movie has a severe BLACKFACE WARNING. While there are African-American extras, the major African-American characters are played by white actors either in blackface or passing for “mulatto”. It is constant and unsettling.
- Like its film adaptation, the original 1905 novel “The Clansman” was quite controversial in its day for its romanticizing of the (then defunct) Ku Klux Klan. Author Thomas Dixon Jr. adapted the novel into a play (also met with controversy; several cities banned it), and was adamant about making a film version. A 1911 version was abandoned, but film critic Frank E. Woods saw the footage and brought it to the attention of D.W. Griffith. A native Kentuckian whose father was a Confederate soldier, Griffith saw the cinematic potential of the novel immediately.
- So I don’t have to deal with it later, here are this movie’s positive technical aspects. While Griffith was not the first person to see film’s potential as a storytelling art form, he was the first one to realize that vision on a big, successful scale. Among the film’s artistic achievements are Griffith’s pioneering usage of close-ups, fade-outs, large action scenes with hundreds of extras, color tinted film, and an original score composed specifically for a movie. Plus this was one of the first successful feature-length films (shorts were still the industry standard in 1915). This is all well and good, but we have much larger issues to acknowledge.
- The movie makes a point at the beginning about being anti-war, but that message definitely gets lost after the next intertitle, in which the arrival of slaves from Africa is called “the first seed of disunion”. Oof.
- Then-current President Woodrow Wilson gets a few shoutouts with quoted passages from his book “History of the American People” about the foundation of the Klan. While he did go on to denounce what the Klan had become, keep in mind that as president, Wilson was responsible for implementing white supremacist ideology into our government and our laws. It’s a very complicated subject, but definitely worth researching.
- The second half of the movie ramps up the repulsiveness. Every African-American character goes mad with power, implementing reverse racism towards the white characters, including voter suppression. Every offensive stereotype about African-Americans is on display here, including Black men lusting after virginal white women. All of this is seemingly orchestrated by Republicans to punish former slave owners, with the gallant and heroic Klan acting as the film’s cavalry.
- As previously mentioned, this movie was a difficult watch for me. I didn’t take a lot of notes, nor did I feel up to doing my usual amount of research on this film. Movies can be effective ways of creating empathy by seeing the world from another viewpoint, but at the end of the day, hate is hate, and you cannot empathize with a gross distortion of history that demeans an entire culture. While the film’s technical innovations are noteworthy, “Birth of a Nation” is totally indefensible.
- Like its novel and theater predecessors, “The Birth of a Nation” was immediately met with condemnation. The NAACP organized protests in several major cities, urging film boards to ban the film (this was before the MPAA, every state had their own film board and censors). “Birth” was banned in a few places, but a screening at the White House (the first film to do so) caused several cities to reconsider following this “endorsement”. The film went on to become the most successful movie of all time.
- D.W. Griffith was surprised by the negative reaction the film received, and his next movie was a response to his critics: 1916’s “Intolerance“. The sheer gall of that title aside, “Intolerance” is the monumental D.W. Griffith spectacle that film historians point to when they want to avoid “Birth of a Nation”. In addition, Griffith added an intertitle for the rerelease of “Birth” called A PLEA FOR THE ART OF THE MOTION PICTURE, which is essentially Griffith’s flowery way of hiding behind the First Amendment.
- “The Fall of a Nation” was an immediate sequel directed and written by Thomas Dixon Jr., and was an attack of the U.S.’s pacifism towards the Great War. It was a commercial failure with no prints known to exist.
- “Birth of a Nation” has been occasionally referenced in modern films, most recently in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman”.
- In 2016, African-American filmmaker Nate Parker chose to name his film about Nat Turner’s 1831 slave revolution “The Birth of a Nation” to reclaim the title from the 1915 film and challenge white supremacy and systemic racism. Despite critical acclaim and early Oscar buzz, the movie was eclipsed by resurfaced sexual assault allegations regarding Parker and co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin, and disappeared amidst this controversy.
- The film’s largest influence sadly goes beyond film. The Klan movement as depicted here was over by the 1870s, but the overwhelming popularity of “Birth of a Nation” caused a revival of various Klan organizations across the country. While this iteration died out by the early 1920s, its third incarnation in the ’50s is still active today. In addition, violence towards Black communities by white people were spurred by screenings of the film. There is a century’s worth of hate and brutality in this country that can trace its lineage back to “The Birth of a Nation”.
Further Viewing: When the NFR added “Birth of a Nation” in 1992, they also inducted 1920’s “Within Our Gates” by Oscar Micheaux, filmdom’s first African-American director. “Within Our Gates” was Micheaux’s response to “Birth of a Nation”, showing how little progress had actually been made since the Civil War regarding racial equality and freedom. If we’re going to continue to discuss “The Birth of a Nation”, it’s only fair to include “Within Our Gates” in that conversation.