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#AceHistoryDesk – Today in History – On February 8, 1915, D. W. Griffith’s controversial silent film, The Birth of a Nation, premiered in Los Angeles, California.
Although local censors approved the film, city council members responded to concerns about the racist nature of the picture by ordering it suppressed. Released under the title, The Clansman, the movie debuted only after Griffith sought an injunction from the court.
Griffith’s story centers on two white families torn apart by the Civil War and reunited by what one subtitle calls, “common defense of their Aryan birthright.
Promoting a skewed historical vision of a war-torn South further abused by carpetbaggers, scalawags, and radical Republicans, the film remakes Lincoln as a friend of the South. “I shall deal with them as though they had never been away,” Griffith’s Lincoln says. In The Birth of a Nation, the Ku Klux Klan rushes in to fill the void left by Lincoln’s untimely death and the chaos of Reconstruction.
The first part of the film begins in the antebellum period, takes viewers across bloody battlefields of the Civil War, through the burning of Atlanta, and ends with the assassination of Lincoln. Yet, the director never loses sight of the human side of these sweeping events—at least where white Southerners are concerned. The movie is as famous for its tender portrayal of family life as its imaginative use of the camera.
The Birth of a Nation advanced the art of cinema even as it enshrined racist stereotypes and historical myth in the new and powerful medium of film. Assisted by cameraman Billy Bitzer, Griffith packed his film with a virtual catalog of innovative film techniques. The Birth of a Nationintroduced or remastered total-screen close-ups, night photography, outdoor photography, fade-out and panoramic long shots, as well as the liberal use of crosscutting between scenes to build suspense. Surgical editing and imaginative camera work were necessary to propel Griffith’s three-hour-long epic.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) immediately and effectively protested the film.
Laden with stereotypes of happy slaves and lazy freedmen, as well as racist assumptions that African-American sexuality was inherently lascivious, The Birth of a Nation was considered a dangerous film. The crime of lynching black men, usually on trumped-up charges of sexual assault, remained a very real concern in 1915 and Griffith’s movie effectively portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as a defender of endangered white womanhood. Protest groups had the film suppressed in several places and Griffith quickly edited out some of the most egregious scenes including a segment depicting the castration of an accused rapist.
As the movie was screened across the country during the late 1910s, protest groups managed to prevent showings in a variety of locales including Ohio, West Virginia, and New York City. As late as the 1940s, the NAACP continued to picket the film and its efforts led the film industry to add prohibitions against ethnic slurs to its production code. Countering the film’s negative stereotypes spurred African-American filmmaking.
Not surprisingly, uproar over The Birth of a Nation failed to prevent its success at the box office. The film remains among the most profitable movies ever made. However, heightened sensitivity to Griffith’s racist viewpoint caused many who initially praised the movie to retract their statements. Contrary to the director’s intent, The Birth of a Nation reveals more about early twentieth-century race relations than it tells us about the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Still, the film’s contribution to the art of moviemaking is undeniable. The film’s importance is acknowledged by its inclusion on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress and the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Years… 100 Movies (1998).
- Search the Chronicling America database of historic American newspapers for articles about this controversial film. Start with Popular Reactions to “Birth of a Nation”: Topics in Chronicling America.
- Read an essay about The Birth of a Nation by Dave Kehr, former film critic and current curator in the Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Film.
- Read Today in History features on Griffith’s colleagues and friends—cameraman Billy Bitzer and the Gish sisters.
- Prior to his career as a director, D. W. Griffith acted in several films including The Sculptor’s Nightmare. View this short comedy through the collection Theodore Roosevelt: His Life and Times on Film.
- Find additional early films through the collection Inventing Entertainment: the Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies.
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