The first feature-length film, the longest, most expensive American movie then made, opened to rave reviews for its artistry, but was also widely condemned for its racism
On this day in history, February 8:
The Birth of a Nation, a controversial, sensational silent film about the Civil War and Reconstruction, opened at Clune’s Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles in 1915. It was the most successful, artistically advanced movie of the time, but also sparked protests, boycotts, and even riots due to its racism.
At its premiere, the film, directed by Southern-bred D.W. Griffith, was called The Clansman, but the title was changed to reflect his conviction that the United States emerged from that divisive era as a unified nation. It was originally presented in two parts, separated by an intermission.
The story is seen through the eyes of two families, the Stonemans from the North, who remain true to the Union, and the Camerons from the South Carolina, who are loyal to Dixie. After the war, former Confederate Colonel Ben Cameron, upset that the South is ruled by carpetbaggers and black freedmen, organizes his fellows into the secret, vigilante Ku Klux Klan, or Invisible Empire.
When Cameron’s younger sister, played by Lillian Gish, leaps to her death rather than surrender to the lusty advances of a former slave, the Klan wages war on the Northern-dominated government and restores order to a South controlled by local, white men again.
Film Mixed Artistry and Racism
This first American blockbuster had record-breaking box office returns, netting more than $10 million (about $200 million today), and was celebrated for its many technical breakthroughs. Griffith combined all his previous innovative experiments with a score that mixed classical music and folk tunes.
Using facial close-ups, long shots, fade-outs, jump cuts, deep focus, cross-cutting and superimpositions, he and cameraman Billy Bitzer managed to communicate the psychology of the main characters as well as the scale of battle. Engineers from West Point offered technical advice on the battle scenes and also provided the artillery used in the film.
The climactic Klan ride to save the innocent, white girl marked Griffith’s greatest use of parallel editing to stimulate emotional excitement. But his version of the Civil War and Reconstruction highlighted stereotypical fears of miscegenation and the dubious heroism of the Klan.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1909, protested the movie’s premiere in many cities and demanded that Griffith make cuts. It also conducted a public education campaign, publishing articles protesting the film’s lies and distortions, organizing petitions against it, and informing people about the facts of the war and its aftermath.
The movie was banned in several states for its racism, and race riots broke out after its premiere in Boston, Philadelphia and other major cities. Chicago, Kansas City, Denver, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Minneapolis did not allow it to open. In Lafayette, Indiana, a white man murdered a black teenage after seeing it.
Griffith’s script suggested that black Americans be shipped to Liberia, citing President Abraham Lincoln as his inspiration. The inflammatory film also directly influenced the reemergence of the Klan, whose membership swelled to more than four million in the 1920s. The Klan continued to use it as a recruiting tool into the 1970s.
Screenplay Based on “The Clansman”
Griffith based his screenplay on Thomas Dixon’s best-selling novels The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905), as well as their adaptation as a stage play. Dixon, a former classmate of President Woodrow Wilson, arranged a screening at the White House for Wilson, who was reported to have said that “it is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
Griffith’s original budget was $40,000, but the film ultimately cost $112,000 (about $2.4 million today). A ticket cost a record $2 (about $42 today). It was the most profitable motion picture in history until it was eclipsed by Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937.
The movie employed techniques that revolutionized production and was accurate in some historical details. But its bigoted portrayal of race relations and promotion of white supremacy were exaggerated in order to justify violent repression of blacks by whites. Despite persistent controversy and protest, it played in theaters for almost 50 years.
In its time, The Birth of a Nation, which ran for three hours and 10 minutes, helped to legitimize films as respectable entertainment . But as recently as 1995, Turner Classic Movies canceled a showing of a restored print due to the racial tensions surrounding the verdict from the O.J. Simpson trial.
“As slavery is the great sin of America,“ wrote film critic Roger Ebert, “so The Birth of a Nation is Griffith’s sin, for which he tried to atone all the rest of his life. So instinctive were the prejudices he was raised with as a 19th century Southerner that the offenses in his film actually had to be explained to him. To his credit, his next film, Intolerance, was an attempt at apology.”
- Aitken, Roy E. The Birth of a Nation Story. 1965.
- Silva, Fred, ed. Focus on Birth of a Nation. 1971.