D. W. Griffith’s Civil War and Reconstruction epic, The Birth of a Nation, premiered on February 8, 1915, a hundred years ago today (at that time it was called The Clansman; the more grandiose title came later). Cinema changed irrevocably that night.
Much as we would like to, we can’t ignore or underestimate The Birth’s artistry, impact, and commercial success. Even the best films made before 1915 are static and crude. But Birth is fluid, dramatic, and stirring. Even today, it’s action climax–with a riot, an attempted rape, a small battle, and a brave band of heroes riding frantically to the rescue–can stir your blood and leave you ready to cheer.
Except for the very problematic fact that those heroes riding to the rescue are wearing white sheets. Yes, cinema’s first great feature film idolizes the Ku Klux Klan.
Like Gone with the Wind 15 years later, Birth tells the story of the Civil War and Reconstruction from a very white, southern, aristocratic point of view. The pre-war South is pictured as a paradise where everyone knew their place and were happy with it. Then the war came and ruined everything.
It’s important to look at Birth of a Nation in its historical context. Griffith was the son of former Kentucky slave owners impoverished by war and emancipation. The civil war was a living memory in 1915, almost as recent as Vietnam is today, and the Confederacy was still worshipped. White supremacy was automatically assumed and unquestioned–at least amongst people of European decent.
You also need to consider it in its film historical context. At the beginning of 1915, the earliest feature-length films were only a few years old. Americans were just beginning to make them, and most were four to six reels. The most daring directors, including Griffith, were still discovering and experimenting with cinema’s possibilities–learning to use close-ups, long-shots, moving cameras, and editing for effect. And only a handful of actors understood the subtle, intimate art of performing in close-up.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, Griffith releases a 13-reel epic with an intermission and–in its initial run–a full orchestra. All those tricks that Griffith and his contemporaries invented melded together to tell a powerful story in a smooth, relatively sophisticated way. Birth of a Nation can’t claim the technical brilliance and professionalism of the best silent features of the 1920s, but it comes amazingly close.
The film surprised everyone. At a time when the take from a very successful movie was counted in thousands of dollars, Birth made six million for its investors and may have made 60 million at the box office. It was the first film screened at the White House. And people who looked down at the flickers suddenly had to acknowledge that there was something there.
The first half, concentrating on the Civil War, isn’t all that racist. If you have any significant experience watching silent films, you’ll squirm a bit at the servile slaves, the suggestion that a sordid interracial romance caused the war, and the white actors smeared with burnt cork. But really, It’s no worse than Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances.
But the second half, set in Reconstruction, takes hate to a whole other level. The ex-slaves, driven on by an evil mulatto (George Siegmann), take control of the city and oppresses the innocent white people. These hoodwinked former slaves even–God forbid–vote. In one memorable scene, the hero (Henry B. Walthall) refuses to shake the mulatto’s hand. I think this was meant as a cue for the audience to cheer.
(The special evil of mulattos is a common trope in racist mythology. Supposedly, someone who is half-white has the intelligence of a white man but not the moral fiber. If you think this stereotype died away with the civil rights movement, I suggest you revisit Lonesome Dove and consider Frederic Forrest’s character.)
And let’s not ignore the sexual issues. Among the many horrible things these former slaves want, the worst is white wives. Interracial marriage, in Griffith’s mind, is a form of rape. One character throws herself to her death because a black man expresses his desire to marry her.
The movie has a happy ending, of course, The hero forms the Klan, which takes over the town (and, we assume, the South), and brings back white superiority. They even keep the former slaves from voting. One intertitle at the climax assures us that former enemies of the North and South have now reunited "in defense of their Aryan birthright."
One odd thing: For all of its Southern rabble-rousing, Birth treats Abraham Lincoln as a saint. When they hear about his assassination, the hero’s family are crestfallen.
The Birth of a Nation’s racism was controversial even in 1915. The NAACP formed largely in response to the film. There were riots and calls for its suppression. Even today, a movie theater can’t screen it with risking vandalism.
And yet, I think it should be screened. It’s too important a piece of film history to be ignored. What’s more, it tells a lot about American racism. The senseless fears generated by Barak Obama’s election are a direct ancestor of Griffith’s nightmare view of a politically active black South..