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The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation(1915)

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[Onscreen credits were taken from a 1921 reissue print of the film.] The opening title card reads, "Griffith Feature Films produced exclusively by D. W. Griffith," followed by a title card that bears the following written statement below "DG," Griffith's trademark: "This is the trade mark of the Griffith feature films. All pictures made under the personal direction of D. W. Griffith have the name 'Griffith' in the border line, with the initials 'DG' at bottom of captions. There is no exception to this rule. DW Griffith." Another written statement appears after the production credits: "A PLEA FOR THE ART OF THE MOTION PICTURE. We do not fear censorship, for we have no wish to offend with improprieties or obscenities, but we do demand, as a right, the liberty to show the dark side of wrong, that we May illuminate the bright side of virtue-the same liberty that is conceded to the art of the written word-that art to which we owe the Bible and the works of Shakespeare." Prior to the film's action, the following written prologue appears: "If in this work we have conveyed to the mind the ravages of war to the end that war May be held in abhorrence, this effort will not have been in vain."
       The David W. Griffith Corp. copyrighted the film under the title The Birth of the Nation: Or The Clansman. According to modern sources, in addition to having Dixon's The Clansman as its literary source, the film also used material from Dixon's novel The Leopard's Spots (New York, 1902). Modern sources indicate that the film previewed in Riverside, CA on 1-2 January 1915 under the title The Clansman. The film was produced by the David W. Griffith Corp. under the auspices of the Majestic Motion Picture Co. It was financed by D. W. Griffith and Harry E. Aitken representing various investors. According to contemporary sources, the film opened under the title The Clansman in Los Angeles on February 8, 1915. Showings in Los Angeles later in the year retained that title. The film received a preview showing in New York on March 1, 1915, and had its premiere under the title The Birth of a Nation [which was on the viewed print] on March 3, 1915 in New York at the Liberty Theatre. The top ticket prices there were $2. On opening night, after the first act, Thomas Dixon appeared on stage and introduced D. W. Griffith to the audience. According to a letter dated March 3, 1915 in the NAACP Papers, African Americans were not allowed into the theater for the performance, but the organization hoped to get in at least two "very fair colored people."
       A New York Dramatic Mirror news item relates that the film was shown to President Woodrow Wilson in the East Room of the White House in February 1915, and that Griffith came from the West Coast especially to attend to the details of the presentation. Modern sources reveal that the date of the White House showing was February 18, 1915, that it was arranged to comply with the request of author Thomas Dixon, who knew Wilson from college, and that in addition to President Wilson, members of his cabinet and staff and their families attended the screening. Wilson reportedly commented about the film, "It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." The next night, according to modern sources, the film was shown to an invited audience in Washington, including Chief Justice Edward White and members of Congress.
       The following information regarding protests against the film by the NAACP and others is taken from information in the NAACP Papers at the Library of Congress and from news stories: Prior to the first showings of the film in Los Angeles, a committee consisting of members of the L.A. branch of the NAACP, the Ministers' Alliance and a local organization called the Forum, were given a screening on January 29, 1915, as arranged by the local censor board. The group filed a protest with the censor board, which passed the film nonetheless, after which the local branch of the NAACP appealed to the mayor and chief of police, but both said that the censor board had jurisdiction. The NAACP subsequently registered a protest with the L.A. City Council urging that the film not be shown in the city. They stated that the film made "an appeal to violence and outrage" and was designed to "excuse the lynchings and other deeds of violence committed against the Negro and to make him in the public mind a hideous monster." They cited some specific scenes they objected to, including one that was subsequently cut from the film: "The little black boy who typified slavery at the abolitionist meeting, is taken in the arms of a saintly and very portly Puritan woman; but she drops him very suddenly and decisively and displays her disgust at his offensive odor by holding her nose and turning her head." They complained, "The Negro is made to look hideous and is invested with most repulsive habits and depraved passions."
       The secretary of the local group, E. Burton Ceruti, however, praised the film's artistic merits in a letter to NAACP national secretary May Childs Nerney, stating, "it is a masterpiece ... and, from an artistic point of view, the finest thing of its kind I have ever witnessed." By late Feb, Nerney had succeeded in getting the support of the chairman of the National Board of Censorship's executive committee, Frederick C. Howe, and his wife. After the Board approved the film, Howe requested that the Board's General Committee review it. According to W. D. McGuire, Jr., the executive director of the Board, they viewed the film on March 1, 1915 and decided that certain changes should be made; McGuire wrote that they met with officers and owners of Epoch Producing Corp., who "at once offered to modify certain scenes." The General Committee met again on 12 March and voted 12-9 to pass the film with the requirement that two additional changes be made, and the producers agreed. (Nerney reported that after the vote, the committee members "cheered the author [i.e. D. W. Griffith] when he came into the room.")
       Following the Board's decision, a number of members resigned, including Howe. According to Nerney, the two most objectionable parts, the "attack of a colored man upon a white girl ending in his lynching, and the attempt of a mulatto leader of the blacks who had been educated by a white Northern man, to force the latter's daughter to marry him," remained in the film. A letter dated April 13, 1915 lists deletions that were made for showings in New York. In Part I, only "The smell incident" (the scene mentioned above taking place during the abolitionist meeting) was the only cut. In Part II, the letter continues, the deletions were, "The beating of a little white child in the presence of her mother by an old colored man who meets them on the street and who is annoyed because the child accidentally gets in his path. The showing of the dead body of 'Gus' after his murder by the Ku Klux Klan. A saloon brawl showing most degraded types of Negroes in a drunken fight. The incident in the South Carolina Legislature where a colored member takes off his shoes." (A number of these scenes are in surviving prints of the film.) In addition, the letter lists the scenes in Part II that were modified: "The incident of the Southern Colonel's refusal to shake hands with the mulatto politician in the North which is cut short. When 'Gus' approaches the white girl whom he afterwards pursues he originally said, 'Missy, I'm a captain now.' This has been changed to 'Missy, I'm a captain now and I will marry-' At the beginning of the second part a new legend has been introduced reading, 'This is an historical presentation of Reconstruction and is not meant to reflect upon any race or people of today.'
       An expansion of this sentiment is also introduced in a long legend which is run at the beginning of the performance inviting censorship. The two rape scenes have not been omitted though the first one has been shortened." The added set of introductory titles, called "A Plea for the Art of the Motion Picture," was signed by Griffith. Correspondence from September 1915 indicates that scenes had been inserted at the end of the film "purporting to show the advance of Negroes since the War"; these scenes showed Hampton Institute and other African-American schools. According to a letter dated September 20, 1915, "There was so much criticism of Hampton having lent its name that the Secretary was sent to New York to see what could be done to have these pictures cut out." A letter to a Buffalo newspaper in February 1916 states that the Hampton Institute scenes received the heartiest applause at a screening.
       The NAACP got the support of a number of influential people to try to get the film banned, including social reformers Lilian D. Ward, Jane Addams and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. In addition, they tried to get financier Otto Kahn to influence his brother Felix, who had invested money in the Mutual Motion Picture Corp. Addams wrote about the film, "it appeals to race prejudice upon the basis of conditions of half a century ago, which have nothing to do with the facts we have to consider today. It is both unjust and untrue. 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. The same method could be followed to smirch the reputation of any race."
       In an article dated May 13, 1915, The Congregationalist and Christian World describes a visit that author Thomas Dixon paid to the newspaper's offices the day before the first showing of the film in Boston. When asked what he hoped to accomplish with the film, Dixon "expressed his desire to teach his version of the Reconstruction Period and urged at considerable length the virtues of the Ku Klux Klan.... He further emphasized his desire to create a feeling of abhorrence for colored men in the hearts of white people, especially white women, in order to stop intermarriage.... Finally, Mr. Dixon proceeded from the inference of white supremacy to argue his desire to secure the removal of all the Negroes from the United States. In order to strengthen his argument he quoted from President Lincoln, who in the last days of the war advocated colonization schemes for the ignorant slaves recently enfranchised and those about to be discharged from the Union Army."
       On April 24, 1916, the Chicago American reported a murder that occurred following a showing of the film in Lafayette, IN. After seeing the film, Henry Brocj, who had arrived from Kentucky five weeks earlier, "walked out on the main street of the city and fired 3 bullets into the body of Edward Manson, a Negro high school student, 15 years old. The boy died tonight. There was no provocation for the tragedy and Brocj is in jail under a charge of murder." No further information regarding the crime has been located.
       According to documents in the NAACP Papers, from the time of the film's first release until the end of 1931, the following governmental actions were taken either to ban the film or to cut it; some of these actions pertained to re-issues of the film, including the 1930 version with an added soundtrack: In Alaska, on October 8, 1918, the mayor of Juneau stopped the showing of the film; in California, in June 1921, the film was taken off the market, and in 1922, it was prohibited from exhibition by an ordinance passed by the City Council of Sacramento; in Connecticut, in December 1915 in New Haven, substantial cuts were made, on August 21, 1924, the exhibition of the film was canceled in New Britain, and in March 1925, the mayor of Hartford ordered two theaters to show another picture instead; in Illinois, on May 15, 1915, the mayor of Chicago refused to permit a license for the film; in Indiana, in September 1915, the film was banned in Gary; in Kansas, in January 1916, the film was banned; in Kentucky, on November 20, 1918, the mayor of Louisville stopped the exhibition of the film using an executive order; in Massachusetts, in 1915 in Boston, the rape scene involving "Gus" was nearly all cut out, in May 1921, the mayor of Boston suspended the license of a theater owner who planned to show the film, and in July 1924, in West Newton, the mayor made a request to a theater not to show the film; in Michigan, on February 14, 1931, the mayor of Detroit issued an order prohibiting the film's exhibition; in Minnesota, in August 1921, the mayor of Minneapolis refused to allow its exhibition, and on December 30, 1930, the City Council of St. Paul passed a resolution ordering the chief of police to stop the film's exhibition; in Nebraska, on March 30, 1931, the mayor of Omaha prohibited the showing of the film; in New Jersey, on December 15, 1923, the film was withdrawn in Camden, in July 1924, the Board of Commissioners of Montclair passed a resolution directing that the film not be shown, in November 1931, officials in Roselle deleted portions of the film, and on September 4, 1931, the deputy director of public safety in Jersey City forbid a theater from continuing to exhibit the film; in New York, on October 13, 1931, the mayor of Glen Cove, Long Island stopped the showing of the film; in Ohio, in October 1916, the film was banned, on June 2, 1925, the Supreme Court refused to license the film in the state, and on March 4, 1926, the attorney general ruled that the Ku Klux Klan could not show the film privately; in Oregon, in March 1931, the city council of Portland prohibited the showing; in Pennsylvania, on September 2, 1931, the mayor of Philadelphia ordered the film barred from the screen; in Rhode Island, in September 1915, the police commissioner of Providence refused to give the producers a license to show the film; and in West Virginia, in February 1919, the legislature passed a bill barring the film from the state. Many of these actions came in response to protests organized by local branches of the NAACP, which also organized protests in other jurisdictions. Protests also occurred in the cities of Morristown, NJ, Norfolk, VA, Springfield, IL, Vancouver, Canada, Atlanta, Atlantic City, Baltimore, Cleveland, Dallas, Milwaukee, Nashville, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, San Francisco, Spokane and Toronto.
       When the film was re-issued in May 1921 in New York, two black ex-servicemen and three black women who served in France as canteen workers were arrested for distributing a circular put out by the NAACP called "Stop the KKK Propaganda in New York." The protesters carried signs reading, "We represented America in France, why should The Birth of a Nation misrepresent us here?" They were charged with violating a city ordinance prohibiting the distribution of hand bills, circulars, or other advertising materials. The NAACP appealed a guilty verdict to make it a test case on whether "educational material" could be distributed in public in New York City, and on November 3, 1921, Judge Alfred Talley of the Court of General Sessions ruled in their favor, stating that the ordinance was designed to prevent littering of advertising matter. After the arrests, D. W. Griffith issued the following statement, which was quoted in New York Times: "It is a source of regret to me that poorly advised people are endeavoring to stir up animosity against The Birth of a Nation. The opposition is misguided, and was misguided and laid away many years ago. The leading villain in the story is a white man, who leads a misguided following into conflicts which do not reflect upon the negro. If there were the slightest ground for protest against the film it seems to me that white men would have more claim to it than negroes."
       The film was revived again in New York for one week beginning December 4, 1922. At that time, the NAACP protested to the Motion Picture Commission of the State of New York, stating, "it is our firm belief that it is being reproduced in New York City again as a part of the campaign of the Ku Klux Klan to recruit members. Much color is lent to this statement by reason of the announcements made in today's New York papers coming from the Rev. Dr. Oscar Haywood, admittedly a national organizer for the Klan to inaugurate during this week a drive for membership in New York City." The Motion Picture Commission voted to disregard the complaint. New York World reported that at the first night, the "audience seemed to be composed largely of modern Klansmen, to judge by the cheers every time a Clansman appeared on the screen."
       During this period, W. E. B. Du Bois, Director of Publications and Research for NAACP, sent a memo to Walter White, the organization's assistant secretary of the NAACP, concerning their fight to get the film banned, which he wrote "illustrates the peculiar contradictions into which the Negro problem often forces this organization," as the NAACP "stands for liberty: physical liberty, political liberty, and particularly liberty in artistic expression." After documenting that the number of lynchings of blacks per year, from 1915 until 1922, was greater than one per week, and that, "The chief alleged excuse for this lynching was the attacks upon white women by colored men," he reasoned, regarding liberty in artistic expression, that The Birth of a Nation presented "a special case. A new art was used, deliberately, to slander and vilify a race. There was no chance to reply. We had neither the money nor the influence.... What were we to do? We decided to try to make the authorities stop the picture on the ground that it was a public menace; that it was not art, but vicious propaganda." He ended the memo with the statement, "We are aware now as then that it is dangerous to limit expression, and yet, without some limitations civilization could not endure."
       The stand that the NAACP took in trying to get the film banned was criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union. In a letter dated April 25, 1939, Director Roger N. Baldwin wrote to Walter White, now Executive Secretary of the NAACP, that efforts to ban the film "are inevitably a boomerang. The precedent established will work against films favorable to Negroes, opposed by the other side.... Of course there can be no objection to protests to motion picture distributors nor to picketing. But when appeal is made to the public authorities to take action, it crosses the line of legitimate pressure, and invades the field of censorship." In a letter dated May 5, 1939, Baldwin argued, "public officials should not use their discretion in permitting or banning films because of their content. If one film can be banned on that ground, any film can be." In a letter dated June 17, 1939, Baldwin wrote, "Any exception from the general principles of freedom for all forms of expression opens the door to official censorship." He asked White, "Can't your Board of Directors be persuaded to take a line drawing that distinction?"
       The issue was brought up again in 1950 when the film was revived again and picketed again at a New York theater. In a letter dated May 19, 1950, Thurgood Marshall, chief of the legal-defense section of NAACP, wrote to Roy Wilkins, editor of the organization's journal The Crisis, "As I understand it, we are opposed to southern cities and states banning pictures which place the Negro in a favorable light. Do we continue to take that position and at the same time take the position that pictures such as Birth of a Nation should be censured by governmental authorities? You will note that this question does not in any wise interfere with the question of picketing such pictures as the Birth of a Nation which we have always done and which I am thoroughly in favor of. When we get to the question of governmental censorship, we get into an awfully tough problem. At any rate, I think it should be passed on by the Committee on Administration."
       In late 1932, Walter White met with William H. Short, Director of the Motion Picture Research Council to discuss the Payne Fund Studies, a psychological survey Short's organization had undertaken to gather and assess information on "attitudes as affected by motion pictures." In a memo about the meeting, White noted that the study had determined that The Birth of a Nation "produced an increase in unfavorable attitude toward the negro among the children examined." Short expressed the hope that evidence from the study could be used in the NAACP's fight to have the film banned, but no indication that the study's findings were actually used by NAACP has been located.
       The original programs and reviews list George Andre Beranger as J. A. Beringer, the character of "Mammy" as "Cyndy," and actor John French as the character "Duke Cameron." Wallace Reid's name was spelled "Reed" in original programs and reviews. Some programs and reviews omit the character "Nelse" and list William De Vaull as the character "Jake." A news item credits scenarist Frank E. Woods with "intricate work in assembling in the cutting room." A broadsheet notes that G.A.R. vets who took part in the battle at Petersburg, VA assisted Griffith in laying out trenches. Listings in the MPSD credit J. A. Barry as executive and producing assistant to Griffith, and Henry I. McMahon as press representative.
       According to a news item in February 1916, Southern Amusement Corp. sued Epoch Producing Corp. in the Supreme Court for $500,000 because, they claimed, on May 6, 1906 Thomas Dixon gave them the sole dramatic rights to The Clansman. No additional information has been located concerning this suit. According to the October 21, 1916 MPSD, Samuel De Vall, who worked in films as a superintendent of art departments and technical director, and F. B. Good, a cinematographer, worked in some capacity on this film. In January 1938, the Washington Herald reported that the film was going to be remade in New York by D. W. Griffith, with Wallace Ford in the role of "The Little Colonel." A March 13, 1940 Washington Times-Herald article stated that Harry E. Aitken, president of Epoch Producing Co., was planning to remake the film with a new director, although Griffith would supervise.
       Modern sources indicate the following additional credits: Chief asst dir George Siegmann; Assistant Director Monte Blue, William Christy Cabanne, Elmer Clifton, Donald Crisp, Howard Gaye, Fred Hamer, Erich von Stroheim, Herbert Sutch, Tom Wilson, Baron von Winther; Assistant Camera Karl Brown; Music D. W. Griffith and Joseph Carl Briel; Film Editor James and Rose Smith; Master carpenter Frank "Huck" Wortman; Special Effects "Fireworks" Wilson; Cast Violet Wilkey (Flora Cameron as a child), Elmo Lincoln (White-arm Joe and eight other roles), Alberta Lee (Mrs. Lincoln), William Freeman (Sentry at hospital), Olga Grey (Laura Keene), Eugene Pallette (Union soldier), Mme. Sul-te-Wan, Erich von Stroheim, and Gibson Gowland. John Ford, in interviews, claimed that he played one of the clansmen. Modern sources note that battle scenes were shot at a location which later became the Universal studio lot, and other scenes were shot at Calexico, CA.