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The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Remind Me
,The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation

D.W. Griffith's epic production The Birth of a Nation had its United States premiere on February 8, 1915, and almost a century later it's still a strong contender for most controversial movie ever made. Its historical importance and cinematic ingenuity are unquestionable, which explains the positive side of its reputation. The negative side is explained by a single overwhelming factor - the unapologetic racism that runs through the picture from beginning to end. Based on a novel by Thomas Dixon, Jr. called The Clansman, the movie's plot is complex and sometimes confusing, but the review in Variety on March 12, 1915, summed it up in a sentence: "The Camerons of the south and the Stonemans of the north and Silas Lynch, the mulatto Lieutenant-Governor, the Civil War...the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the period of Carpet-bagging days and union reconstruction following Lee's surrender, the terrorizing of the southern whites by the newly freed blacks and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan that later overpowers the negros [sic] and gives the white men the authority rightfully theirs." Although reviewer Mark Vance displays a racial prejudice equal to Griffith's own, his high opinion of the film was echoed by many likeminded critics - and bitterly contested by others who found Griffith's technical resourcefulness a meager compensation for the picture's bigotry, insensitivity, and historical spin.

Griffith claimed that his sole intention was to tell the story of the Civil War and the postwar Reconstruction era as they really happened, from his own perspective as a Southerner who accepted the outcome of the war, and that offending black Americans was the last thing he wanted to do. To this end he adapted a novel in which the KKK is the hero, and arranged for all the black characters (except some extras) to be played by white actors in blackface. Watching the film today, it's hard to believe Griffith actually thought black moviegoers - or many white ones - would enjoy his portrait of slaves and former slaves as slow-witted, servile, sexually rapacious dullards who would have ruined the nation if the KKK hadn't been invented in the nick of time. If he did think that, he was incredibly thickheaded.

And so he was. Judging from historical records and film scholarship, Griffith was genuinely surprised by the uproar surrounding the movie's release. Born in rural Kentucky to a Confederate Army officer who had fought in the Civil War and returned with countless tales of Confederate heroism, Griffith saw the war and Reconstruction from a Southern perspective he never questioned. This helps account for the racism in The Birth of a Nation, but it doesn't excuse Griffith's failure to challenge the version of history he'd absorbed in childhood, especially since in other areas of life he was what we'd now call a liberal or progressive - deploring the excesses of capitalism in A Corner in Wheat (1909), for instance, and condemning various forms of bigotry in Intolerance (1916). When a 1915 editorial in the New York Globe attacked The Birth of a Nation for pandering to "depraved tastes" and fomenting "a race antipathy that is the most sinister and dangerous feature of American life," Griffith shot back a letter saying that by "following the formula of the best dramas of the world we establish our ideals by revealing the victory of right over wrong." His equation is both malevolent and simplistic: freed slaves enjoying their freedom equals wrong, the KKK murdering their liberty equals right.

The Birth of a Nation cost about $110,000 to make, equivalent to several million dollars today; the battle scenes alone have been estimated at $40,000. Financing came from private investors rather than established production companies, because of the project's unusual nature and also because Griffith was now based in the Southern California area that would soon become Hollywood, far from the New York hub of the pre-1915 film industry. Griffith worked from a plot outline rather than a formal script, researching historical details with the help of four assistants. Production began on the Fourth of July in 1914 and wrapped on Halloween, and the final twelve-reel cut debuted under the film's original title, The Clansman, at Clune's Auditorium in Los Angeles, running there for seven months. By the time of its New York opening in March - at the Liberty Theater, where it played for eleven months - it had received its new and permanent title, apparently because Dixon felt the title of his novel wasn't imposing enough for so magnificent a film. Bad record-keeping has kept the movie's profits from being precisely calculated to this day, but film historian Anthony Slide reckons that it has "probably been seen by more people than any other film." While that may have changed with the advent of global blockbusters by the likes of James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, the cumulative audience for Griffith's epic has surely been of epic proportions.

And no wonder, since The Birth of a Nation was a groundbreaking entertainment in its day. Longer and more exciting than any American picture to date, it lured middle-class and wealthy patrons back to the movies, which had catered to working-class audiences during the nickelodeon era. According to the official souvenir program for its first road-show engagements, 18,000 people and 3,000 horses appear on the screen; making the KKK uniforms took up more than 25,000 yards of white cloth; and nearly 200,000 feet of film were shot, edited to 12,000 for the final cut, which ran about three hours and ten minutes at the then-usual projector speed of 16 frames per second. On top of these high-end production values, the film was endorsed by no less a personage than Woodrow Wilson, the president of the United States, who remarked, after seeing it in the first-ever movie screening at the White House, "It is like writing history with Lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true."

Rave reviews from Wilson and many critics helped The Birth of a Nation become cinema's first blockbuster, but they didn't persuade everyone that the picture was benign. Before its New York premiere, the NAACP pushed both the motion-picture industry and national censors to condemn or at least censure the picture, winning only a few token trims with their efforts. Griffith's characteristic response to such attacks was "to insist on the sincerity of his art," in the words of biographer Richard Schickel, and "to associate his cause with the cause of free speech and a free press." Later the NAACP organized protests outside the Manhattan theater where it was playing, and an April showing in Boston resulted in a full-scale riot; but these and other expressions of outrage did little to dampen the film's popularity. Contention has arisen many times since, as when an Atlanta censorship board banned it in 1959, and when the town of Riverside, California, which had hosted the film's first prerelease screening in 1915, canceled a showing at its museum in 1978. The right to exhibit it was challenged at least 120 times between 1915 and 1973, according to film scholar Janet Steiger.

The narrative energy and technical wizardry of The Birth of a Nation speak for themselves to those who view the film today. As for its ideological failings and noxious views, no one has better articulated the case against them than the pioneering social worker Jane Addams, who spoke about it with the New York Post during its initial New York run. Calling it a "pernicious caricature of the Negro race" that is both "unjust and untrue," Addams reproached it for portraying blacks as "worse than childish and brutal and vicious--actually grotesque and primitive and despicable." In remarks that ring far truer than Griffith's shifty defenses, she observed that you "can use history to demonstrate anything when you take certain of its facts and emphasize them to the exclusion of others." The glimpses of real history in The Birth of a Nation serve only to make the film more insidious, she added, promoting "the most subtle of untruths - a half truth." Those words from 1915 are worth recalling when we explore Griffith's racist blockbuster in the twenty-first century.

Director: D.W. Griffith
Producer: D.W. Griffith
Scenario: D.W. Griffith and Frank E. Woods, based on Thomas F. Dixon, Jr.'s novel The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan
Cinematographer: G.W. Bitzer
Film Editing: D.W. Griffith, Joseph Henabery, James Smith, Rose Smith, Raoul Walsh
Music: Joseph Carl Breil
With: Lillian Gish (Elsie Stoneman), Mae Marsh (Flora Cameron), Henry Walthall (Col. Ben Cameron), Miriam Cooper (Margaret Cameron), Mary Alden (Lydia Brown), Ralph Lewis (Austin Stoneman), George Seigmann (Silas Lynch), Walter Long (Gus), Robert Harron (Tod Stoneman), Wallace Reed (Jeff), Jos. Henabery (Abraham Lincoln), Elmer Clifton (Phil Stoneman), Josephine Crowell (Mrs. Cameron), Spottiswoode Aitken (Dr. Cameron), J.A. Beringer (Wade Cameron), Maxfield Stanley (Duke Cameron), Jennie Lee (Mammy), Donald Crisp (Gen. Ulysses S. Grant), Howard Gaye (Gen. Robert E. Lee).

by David Sterritt