Birth of a Nation, The

views updated May 23 2018

Birth of a Nation, The





African Americans were concerned about race and racism in the motion picture industry from its inception. The negative portraits of blacks on film resulted from popularly held, romantic beliefs in the white community about blacks and black lifestyles as depicted in historical and contemporary literature and personal accounts about the old plantation and happy, faithful slaves. Film is a powerful medium, and any study of race and racism must examine the impact of negative motion picture images of blacks on the larger community, because images carry ideas, and in the social construction of race, ideas are of supreme importance.


The Progressive Era, which spawned the motion picture industry toward the beginning of the twentieth century, coincided with a period of great technological advancement that resulted in more leisure time for many urban people. The opportunity to provide recreation and entertainment for Americans became a significant endeavor. Late in the nineteenth century baseball had become a national pastime; vaudeville and blackface minstrelsy were popular forms of entertainment, as was ragtime music after the black pianist and composer Scott Joplin appeared in concert at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893; and the old and the young, black and white, working and middle classes enjoyed such leisurely activities as attending amusement parks and circuses. Eventually, however, going to the movies would be one of the most fascinating and popular forms of entertainment, and the images one saw created a lasting impression.

From the time that new technology made possible the creation of moving pictures and their projection on a screen, the images of African Americans on film were pejorative caricatures that presented them as lazy, stupid, happy-go-lucky, watermelon-eating, thieving “darkies.” For example, a few seconds of footage from an early Thomas Edison film (c. 1896) simply presented blacks as chicken thieves. Many of these early films had suggestive and derogatory titles such as The Wooing and Wedding of a Coon (1905) and A Nigger in a Woodpile (1904). Nevertheless, none had the same political or social impact as a single, racist, entertainment film that David Wark Griffith (known as D. W. Griffith) would make.

Filmmaker Griffith was born in Floydsfork (now Crestwood), Kentucky, in 1875. His father was a Confederate officer during the Civil War and was among the many politically disaffected whites who blamed Radical Reconstruction for their plight. Griffith grew up in an environment where white carpetbaggers (white Northerners who sided with blacks during Reconstruction) and scalawags (white Southerners who cooperated with both) were viewed with contempt and distrust. African Americans, especially in the South, were seen as inferior people who required the guiding hand of the civilized white man to prevent their further degeneration into uncontrollable savagery.

The historical and other literature of the time confirmed these racist beliefs for Griffith. As early as 1873, James S. Pike published The Prostrate State in which he denigrates black legislators elected during Reconstruction. Pike contends that they were ignorant and incompetent and were in power only through a conspiracy with President Ulysses S. Grant to punish white Southerners. Respected historians such as James Ford Rhodes and William Archibald Dunning accepted the view that blacks were inferior. In 1907 Dunning published a critical study on Radical Republicanism in the South titled Reconstruction in which he accuses blacks in state legislatures of being corrupt, irresponsible, and incapable of governing. Dunning, a professor at Columbia University, taught and mentored many white students from the South, who in turn

published a variety of historical monographs that castigated the North for forcing Radical Reconstruction on the South and placing despicable, uneducated, and corrupt blacks in control of the political system. These studies formed what was called the Dunning school of Reconstruction interpretation, which became the standard and accepted view of Reconstruction for nearly half a century.

While this historical literature would provide Griffith with what he believed was a factual background for his views on blacks, his film was an adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s racist novel The Clansman (1905). This novel, along with The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Traitor (1907), comprised a trilogy that Dixon wrote romanticizing the Ku Klux Klan as the savior of whites in the South from bestial blacks who, unchecked, would eventually destroy white civilization through miscegenation. Dixon, a fervent racist and ordained minister, asserted that his novels were based on the truth, and they were advertised as such. These novels were very popular and had a significant impact in many white communities. White Americans in general believed that these powerful antiblack images were true, particularly that oversexed black men lusted for white women and that it was the duty of the Klan to protect their women. Ignored was the fact that at this time it was expected that white men would have sexual relations with their black domestics as a teenage rite of passage.

Indeed, from the 1880s forward black sexuality and white female virtue were at the center of the ghastly and barbaric practice of lynching. For white males, cross-racial sex was a mark of “manhood”; for black males, the same action mandated as gruesome a death as possible. Any cross-racial sexual encounter by black males was interpreted as “assault” or rape requiring vigilante vengeance, the intention of either party being irrelevant. The infamous Atlanta Race Riot of 1906 provides an example.

In September 1906 the Atlanta News published several editions detailing alleged violent sexual attacks against white women committed by blacks. Immediately, white mobs gathered and began to roam the streets beating and assaulting random blacks. A full-scale riot ensued that left twenty-five blacks and two whites dead. An investigation by a Northern journalist showed that a play based on Dixon’s novel, The Clansman, had been presented in Atlanta just prior to the riot and that it helped to exacerbate antiblack feeling among white Atlantans.


In 1915, eight years after the Atlanta riot, Griffith made and released perhaps the most controversial film of the twentieth century, The Birth of a Nation. Griffith used innovative cinematic techniques including fade-outs, close-ups, parallel action shots, elaborate costuming, high-angle panoramic shots, and realistic battlefield scenes to tell an emotional and compelling story in an epic and spectacular manner. In deference to Southern sensibilities, he used white actors in blackface to portray black characters that came into close contact with or touched white actors and actresses. Real blacks had only small roles in the film. Birth was a message film designed to stigmatize blacks in the most offensive way. It was clear that images in motion pictures could be used for more than just entertainment and that their potential use as propaganda was unlimited.

Thematically, Birth was a relentless attack against Radical Reconstruction and a glorification of the pre–Civil War South. In Griffith’s South, Northern carpetbaggers and Southern blacks were the villains, and those whites who upheld traditional Southern values, including keeping black people in their place, were the heroes. The film glorified racial vigilantism, lynching, Jim Crow segregation, and the Ku Klux Klan. It helped to revive the Klan; it rationalized lynching in the interest of protecting the virtue of white women; it incited rioting and prompted protests; it helped to launch the race movie industry; it gave credence to a school of historiography that claimed that Radical Reconstruction was a failure; and it received an official stamp of approval from the president of the United States. Dixon, who knew President Woodrow Wilson from their college days at Columbia University, persuaded the president to have a special showing of Birth at the White House. After the screening in the company of his daughters, Wilson described the film as akin to seeing history “written with lightning” and claimed it was a true account of Reconstruction.

Griffith’s epic film traces the impact of the Civil War, Radical Reconstruction, and Redemption on the citizens of Piedmont, South Carolina, through the eyes of two families, the Camerons, who live in Piedmont, and the Stone-mans of Pennsylvania. Austin Stoneman is the powerful leader of the Radical Republicans, but his sons have known the Camerons since the romantic days of the idyllic ante-bellum South. Prior to the Civil War, Dr. Cameron and his family are depicted as being kind and caring toward their slaves. The slaves in turn, are portrayed as happy-go-lucky Negroes who just love picking cotton for the master. In fact, everyone on the Cameron plantation is happy because all understand and are satisfied with the social order. Griffith creates an environment where benevolent paternalism assures that conflicts are minimized. As the Civil War begins, the Stonemans and the Camerons find themselves on the opposite sides of abolitionism.

To show that many Northerners supported the Southern view of blacks, Griffith has the Stonemans arriving in Piedmont as carpetbaggers. However, they soon come to sympathize with the plight of the Camerons and Southerners whose lives had been disrupted and whose society had been thrown into turmoil under the leadership of Radical Republicans and incompetent, ignorant, and bestial blacks and Mulattoes who came to control state legislatures in the South. Griffith shows the idyllic Piedmont under siege by carpetbaggers and newly freed, sex-crazed, and uppity blacks. Disorder and chaos reign in Piedmont as disobedient ex-slaves roam the streets mistreating, disenfranchising, and disrespecting whites while the fields lay fallow because the ex-slaves refuse to work. They are more interested in dancing, singing, and mocking the good white citizens of Piedmont. The blacks who are elected to the state legislature are shown as incompetent and arrogant. In addition, they show no respect for the legislative process and are more interested in eating fried chicken, drinking, and resting their tired feet on their statehouse desks.

Birth addresses the theme of interracial sexual contact in a manner consistent with the view that miscegenation would destroy white civilization. The film’s characters Gus, an uppity black, and Silas Lynch, a Mulatto, are depicted as aggressive, oversexed, and savage in their lust for white women. Lynch’s status as a Mulatto suggests that any amount of black blood, no matter how small, would be enough to pollute the bloodline of whites. Lynch’s greatest desire is to force Elsie Stoneman, the daughter of Republican Austin Stoneman, to marry him. Lynch and Gus symbolize and conjure up a once deeply held and persistent fear in white America—that every black man wants a sexual relationship with a white woman. Thus, Gus, in a lustful rage, chases the young Flora Cameron through a wood trying to convince her to marry him, but rather than submitting to his sexual advances, she hurls herself over a cliff. This unites the Camerons and the Stonemans, and even the great abolitionist Austin Stoneman comes into the Southern fold when he learns that his appointee, the Mulatto Lynch, wants to marry his daughter Elsie, who is in love with Colonel Ben Cameron, the last of the Cameron sons.

The film ends with members of the Cameron and Stoneman families having survived a siege in a local cabin where they were hiding from black renegades. Ben forms the local Klan into a fighting force, and they confront and defeat blacks in what is, essentially, a race war. They rescue Piedmont and its white citizens from the control of blacks and carpetbaggers and reestablish social order under white leadership. The triumphant Klan and the Camerons and Stonemans ride into Piedmont as heroes and prepare for the marriage of Phil Stoneman to Margaret Cameron, and the marriage of Elsie Stoneman to Ben Cameron. Griffith uses the last scene to show that Southern and Northern whites must unite to keep blacks in their place. It is only when the Stonemans see firsthand the depraved nature of black males that they come to understand that they have been misguided in their belief that blacks could ever be the equal of whites.


Most historians believe that Birth played a role in the reemergence of an even more powerful Klan after the film was released in 1915. William J. Simmons, a flamboyant white supremacist, chose the opening of the film in Atlanta, Georgia, to announce the rebirth of the new Klan. Simmons proclaimed himself the Imperial Wizard of the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. He cloaked the organization in the fabric of 100 percent Americanism and laid down the gauntlet to Jews, Catholics, niggers, and foreigners, saying that the Klan would do whatever was necessary to protect the American way of life. This meant, of course, that only white Anglo-Saxon Protestants would receive protection. Simmons would often parade around with several weapons to showcase his readiness to confront America’s enemies.

The release of the film occurred as thousands of blacks were migrating to the North, and it was easy to transfer the antiblack message in the film to Jews and Catholics and the hundreds of thousands of eastern and southern European immigrants who were coming to the United States. In fact, in Atlanta during the late summer of 1915, two weeks before Birth was shown, a mob of armed men lynched and mutilated the body of Leo Frank, a Jewish American, who had been tried and convicted, on specious evidence, of killing Mary Phagan, a thirteen-year-old white girl. Birth served to encourage this kind of mob mentality.

Insofar as blacks were concerned, Birth’s impact was pervasive. Threats of rioting were associated with its release, but some of the most destructive race riots in the nation’s history occurred in Northern cities only a few years later, in 1919. The film echoed America’s violent racial history, the roots of the Ku Klux Klan dating back to the late 1860s. From the beginning of the twentieth century to the 1920s, the Klan had grown from a few thousand members to well over 100,000, and continued to grow throughout the country, virtually controlling the state of Indiana in the 1930s. Ironically, the white terrorist organizations that emerged during Reconstruction after the Civil War were concerned only about the political restoration of the Old South. Organizations such as the Klan, the Knights of the White Camellia, the White Brotherhood, the Pale Faces, and others wanted to disrupt radical rule and redeem the South from the clutches of what they contended were incompetent blacks, Northern carpetbaggers, and traitorous scalawags. During the period from 1867 to 1871, terrorists in secret societies flogged, lynched, shot, and murdered Republicans and their black and white supporters. Finally, the escalating violence and near anarchy in the South compelled the U.S. Congress to pass the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which imposed heavy fines and jail sentences on those convicted in federal courts of terrorist acts. When President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew the last of the federal troops from the South in 1877, and the Southern Democrats gained control, participation in secret organizations began to decline. The Klan and other secret societies were never a major problem in the North until the Progressive Era.

The nascent National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which black and white progressives had created in 1909, organized one of its first biracial protests as a result of Birth.It published a pamphlet titled Fighting a Vicious Film: Protest against The Birth of a Nation, calling the film filth. The NAACP moved quickly to prevent the film from being shown in cities across the nation. Their protests resulted in the banning of the film in Chicago, Denver, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis and the editing out of some of the most offensive sequences, specifically, the attempted sexual assault scene and also scenes recommending that all blacks be shipped to Africa, when the film premiered in Boston. Much to the organization’s dismay, however, the NAACP’s response raised the issue of censorship, and this alienated the support of some progressives and liberals. In addition, the more the NAACP protested, the more publicity the film received and the more popular it became. In New York City, moviegoers bought more than three million tickets over several months to see the film. In Atlanta, thousands of Klansmen paraded through the streets to celebrate the opening of the film in 1915. By 1920, Birth had grossed more than $60 million. It was the first film treated as a major cultural event, with theaters charging an unprecedented two dollars per ticket.

Changing its tactics, the NAACP decided to make a film relating to the positive contributions of African Americans to American society. In 1915 Mary White Ovington, one of the founding members of the NAACP, approached Universal Studios about making the film. Universal was wary about undertaking such a controversial project, and because financial backing was minimal, the idea died. However, Booker T. Washington and his assistant Emmett J. Scott were also interested in making a film similar to what the NAACP had proposed. They wanted to make a film that would portray African Americans in a more positive manner from the Civil War through World War I. Scott organized and developed the project and John W. Noble and Rudolph De Cordova wrote and directed a film initially titled Lincoln’s Dream but eventually released as Birth of a Race (1918). What was to have been a short film turned into a much longer one that took more than three years to complete at a cost of approximately $500,000. The film was shot in Chicago, Illinois, New York, and Florida but inclement weather, inexperienced production crews, poorly designed sets, and financial problems hampered its completion. The final film was about three hours long but was reedited after an initial screening to sixty minutes. Race was neither a financial nor an artistic success when Scott released the film in 1919. Many blacks liked the film, but critics questioned the historical accuracy of the film and complained about its sexual content and violence. Scott had attempted, unsuccessfully, to replicate what Griffith had accomplished, but in a manner more favorable to blacks. It appears that a non-fiction film would have been more appropriate for what Scott wanted to achieve, but, unfortunately, the documentary format had not yet become a film genre.

While Race was not a successful film venture, it did encourage other African Americans to make their own films that would present blacks as normal human beings unlike the black caricatures so pervasive in Birth. In 1916 the Johnson brothers, George and Noble, founded the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, one of the first black film companies, and produced and released two films, The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition (1916) and Trooper of Troop K (1916). The Lincoln Company was short-lived and produced only a few films, but black film companies such as Ebony Pictures, The Birth of a Race Company, and others quickly joined the filmmaking fray.

In retrospect, the Johnson brothers may well have been more successful had they agreed to work on an Oscar Micheaux film project. Micheaux was an enterprising black entrepreneur and writer who started the Western Book Supply Company as an outlet to publish his books. George Johnson read one of his novels, The Homesteader (1917), which was about the difficulties of a black farmer and wanted to make a film based on the book. Micheaux agreed, but only if he could direct the film. In addition, he disagreed with Johnson about the location and length of the film, and the deal was never consummated. Micheaux returned to his home in Sioux City, South Dakota, and reorganized his company into the Micheaux Film and Book Company and, in time, would become the most important of the independent black filmmakers who made what became known as “race” films. Two of Micheaux’s best-known films, Within Our Gates (1920) and The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), as well as several of his other films, concern interracial marriage and sexual contact, lynching, and the Ku Klux Klan, but from a black perspective. These films directly challenge many of the views on blacks set forth in Birth.

One need not accept a single premise or theme in The Birth of a Nation to understand why it is one of the most important films in the history of cinema. It literally changed the way films were made. For good or bad, feature films with a message attempted to persuade the audience to accept a specific point of view, and Birth was the first film in this genre to have such a pervasive impact on American society. Unfortunately, it created black phenotypes and genotypes in film consisting of coons, toms, Mulattoes, mammies, and bucks that have persisted and that refuse to die easily. Even in the early twenty-first century, Birth generates heated discussion, much of it involving the balance between artistic creative freedom and social responsibility. The film gave the movies its technical vocabulary, but it also gave comfort to the racism that continues to besmirch America’s social life. In the meantime, Griffith died in 1948, having made and lost a fortune trying and failing to replicate the financial success of Birth. Two years earlier, Dixon had died a wealthy man from monies he made and kept as a result of his one-fourth financial interest in Birth.

SEE ALSO Black Reconstruction; Ku Klux Klan; NAACP; NAACP: Legal Actions, 1935–1955.


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Donald Roe

The Birth of a Nation

views updated May 23 2018


USA, 1915

Director: D. W. Griffith

Production: Epoch Producing Corporation; black and white, 35mm, silent; length: 13,058 feet, later cut to 12,000 feet. Released 8 February 1915, Los Angeles. Re-released 1930 with musical soundtrack. Filmed 4 July through 24 September 1914 in Reliance-Majestic Studios, Los Angeles, and various outdoor locations around Los Angeles; cost: $110,000.

Producer: D. W. Griffith; scenario: D. W. Griffith, Thomas Dixon, and Frank Woods, from the play The Clansman by the Rev. Thomas Dixon; assistants to the director include: Eric von Stroheim, Raoul Walsh, Jack Conway, and George Siegman; photography: G. W. (Billy) Bitzer and Karl Brown; editor: James Smith; compiler of music for the sound version: Joseph Carl Breil, assisted by D. W. Griffith; costume supplier: Robert Goldstein.

Cast: Henry B. Walthall (Ben Cameron, the "Little Colonel"); Mae Marsh (Flora); Miriam Cooper (Margaret, the older sister); Violet Wilkey (Flora as a child); Josephine Crowell (Mrs. Cameron); Spottiswoode Aitken (Dr. Cameron); Andre Beranger (Wade Cameron); Maxfield Stanley (Duke Cameron); Jennie Lee (Mammy); William De Vaull (Jake); Lillian Gish (Elsie Stoneman); Ralph Lewis (The Hon. Austin Stoneman); Elmer Clifton (Phil Stoneman); Robert Harron (Ted Stoneman); Mary Alden (Lydia Brown, Stoneman's housekeeper); Tom Wilson (Stoneman's Negro servant); Sam De Grasse (Senator Sumner); George Siegman (Silas Lynch); Walter Long (Gus); Elmo Lincoln (White Arm Joe); Wallace Reid (Jeff, the blacksmith); Joseph Henaberry (Abraham Lincoln); Alberta Lee (Mrs. Lincoln); Donald Crisp (Gen. Ulysses S. Grant); Howard Gaye (Gen. Robert E. Lee); William Freeman (Sentry); Olga Grey (Laura Keene); Raoul Walsh (John Wilkes Booth); Eugene Palette (Union Soldier); Bessie Love (Piedmont Girl); Charles Stevens (Volunteer); Erich von Stroheim (Man who falls off roof).



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"More than any picture before it, it made moviegoing a middle class activity," writes Joan L. Silverman of The Birth of a Nation (French, ed., The South in Film). "Soon movie palaces were built in fashionable neighborhoods all over the United States." More than that, the film remains one of the most controversial of the medium's first century. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) branded it racist; riots followed in cities such as Boston; widespread picketing and lawsuits continued for years in many cities and states. Although Griffith found it difficult to raise the $110,000 that the film cost, and production was halted at times for fund-raising drives, by the end of the silent film period, it had made $18,000,000.

Griffith's much-hailed narrative techniques are relatively simple but enormously influential adaptations and expansions of the "villain still pursued her" formulaic storytelling of 19th-century theatrical melodramas. Griffith was an unknown actor when he was hired by Biograph Studios of New York to make the one-reel, 12-minute fictional films that were changed weekly at storefront nickelodeons. By the end of 1910 he had made 250, but was losing patience with the length limitation. An experimental two-reeler, however, was split by producers into two weeks' shows. Not until the summer of 1913, after he had completed another 175 or so films, was he allowed finally to expand to four reels with Judith of Bethulia. Dissatisfied, he left Biograph to join Harry E. Aitken's new company to make five fiveto-seven reel films during the first six months of 1914. Meanwhile he was plotting—in a double sense—to match the competition from abroad, especially Italy, where since 1911, the flamboyant poet Gabrielle D'Annunzio, had developed a series of spectacular but static films based on classical motifs into the ten-reel Cabiria. Critics predicted this would "convince many doubtful people that high art and the motion picture are not incompatible" (Pratt, ed., Spellbound in Darkness, 1966).

Griffith was determined, after moving his operations from overcrowded New York City to Los Angeles, to push American films to the forefront just at the time that European production was curtailed by World War I. He opted, however, for action over art. In 1908 he had worked briefly for the self-proclaimed bigot Thomas Dixon, Jr., who had cobbled together two of his rabble-rousing novels about the South during Reconstruction into a play called The Clansman. The Reverend Dixon was willing to sell the rights for the then huge sum of $10,000 (£2,000).

The opening portion of the film was apparently created on the spot by Griffith, as no script exists. The scene opens in pre-Civil War Piedmont, the gracious pastoral capital of a deep Southern state, in which the Cameron family and those "faithful souls," their household slaves, are entertaining affectionately the sons of northern Congressman Austin Stoneman (based somewhat fancifully on Pennsylvania's radical Republican Senator Thaddeus Stevens). The outbreak of war disrupts this relationship—and when the boys face each other on the battlefield, the younger son of each family is killed. Griffith proclaimed in an opening subtitle that this message was that "war must be held in abhorrence."

Ben Cameron is falsely accused of spying and sentenced to death; his mother makes a precarious trip to Washington to plead for him, and the Great Heart, President Lincoln, grants a pardon. Mrs. Cameron's cause is abetted by Elsie Stoneman, who had not visited Piedmont with her brothers, but who has come to know and love Ben while nursing him back to health. Through this episodic section of the film, Griffith interrupts the heart-rending saga of the families with what he insisted were authentic reconstructions of some of the great moments of the war and its aftermath, including the assassination of President Lincoln, whom Griffith believed could have ameliorated the situation after the war.

With the assassination, Dixon takes over; and public history gives way to private myth. Congressman Stoneman becomes the fiery apostle of Reconstruction, determined to replace traitorous Southern leaders with freed slaves whom his cabal can manipulate. He appoints Silas Lynch, his mulatto cohort, the new lieutenant-governor in Piedmont to organize this. When a renegade black soldier, inflamed by Lynch's proddings and free liquor, threatens to rape Ben Cameron's "pet sister," she jumps from a cliff to her death rather than suffer dishonour. Outraged, Ben, after watching children donning sheets and playing ghosts, is portrayed by Griffith as founding the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to restore proper law and order to the South and keep the blacks in their place. Enraged, Silas Lynch sets out to destroy the Klan and the Camerons, and also to marry Elsie Stoneman, by force if necessary. When the Congressman learns of his henchman's audacity, he sees the error of his ways. In the most famous sequence of the film, Griffith uses the stunning effect of alternating closeups and long-shots, enhanced by printing the black images on stock tinted in a variety of colours that it was theorized influenced viewers' reactions (red for battle scenes, green for pastoral romance, etc.).

Elsie is rescued from Lynch's townhouse to join the frenzied dash to the lonely cabin where the Camerons are preparing to join their dead daughter. The Klan comes to the rescue at the last moment, paving the way for a double wedding between the Camerons and the Stonemans which restores peace to the community. However, it leaves open the question of whether the "nation" whose "birth" Griffith had in mind was that of the "Invisible Empire" of the KKK or of the disunited states, at last peacefully amalgamated by this symbolic marriage.

The first audiences saw the long runs of the big city "road shows"; a live orchestra accompanied the film, playing a rousing score by Joseph Carl Breil. Griffith travelled around the country constantly editing the film; the censors insisted upon other cuts. The results of this editing toned down the racist elements that Lillian Gish had feared might make people object to the film; however, protests to the film continued.

Griffith tried to remedy the situation by making his first talking picture Abraham Lincoln and by releasing a cut version of The Birth of a Nation, which was almost an hour shorter than the original; all references to the KKK were eliminated.

The film remains a landmark in the development of motion pictures. Its length (rarely equalled since), its exploitation of technical devices (producing startlingly new effects), and its establishment of the pattern of the horse opera that dominated American film melodrama, accord it a unique place in the evolution of American and international filmmaking.

It retains its sentimental and provocative power, but its circulation is restricted to groups studying both Griffith's reasons for making the film and the damage inflicted on a new medium by a great innovator's propagandistic vision. Perhaps the most perceptive judgement was written by a reviewer for the New York Times in 1921: "Sometimes it is almost epic in quality. But in many scenes it is falsely romantic and as blindly partisan as the most violent sectional tradition. It may be said that, as a rule, it comes closest to historical truth when it is furthest from Thomas Dixon."

—Warren French

Birth of a Nation, The

views updated Jun 11 2018


BIRTH OF A NATION, THE. The first feature-length film, The Birth of a Nation was made in 1915 and concerns the struggles of a southern family during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Directed by David Wark Griffith, Birth is as renowned for its technical innovations as it is notorious for its racial stereotypes and violence. Griffith and cameraman G. W. "Billy" Bitzer innovated

close-ups, fade-outs, and cross-cutting techniques that revolutionized motion picture production. Griffith based his screenplay on Thomas Dixon Jr.'s best-selling novels The Leopard's Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905) and their subsequent adaptation as a touring stage production. After the Civil War, the former Confederate colonel Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) watches as the radical policies of politician Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis) allow carpetbaggers and black freedmen to overrun his South Carolina town. A black soldier (Walter Long) assaults Ben's little sister (Mae Marsh), and a mulatto politician (George Seigmann) demands to marry Ben's love interest (Lillian Gish). In response, Ben organizes the Ku Klux Klan, restoring control of the South to southern white men. While Birth is remarkably accurate in many historical details, its portrayal of race relations is obscured and exaggerated to justify whites' violent repression of blacks. The film was nevertheless a box-office hit and played in theaters for nearly fifty years, despite persistent controversy and protest.


Aitken, Roy E. The Birth of a Nation Story. As told to Al P. Nelson. Middleburg, Va.: William W. Denlinger, 1965.

Rogin, Michael. "'The Sword Became a Flashing Vision': D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation." In The New American Studies: Essays from Representations, edited by Philip Fisher. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Silva, Fred, ed. Focus on The Birth of a Nation. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1971.

Kristen L.Rouse

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