THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915)

  • Director: D.W. Griffith
  • Writers: D.W. Griffith & Frank E. Woods, based on The Clansman by Thomas Dixon, Jr.
  • Starring: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Miriam Cooper, Mary Alden, Ralph Lewis, George Siegmann, Walter Long, Wallace Reid, Elmer Clifton, Robert Harron, Josephine Crowell, Spotiswoode Aitken, George Beranger, and Maxfield Stanley
  • Accolades: 1998 AFI Top 100 list (#44)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Kanopy (library app)

The Birth of a Nation has a very strange place in movie history, because it is fairly universally thought to be the first great “epic” film, which is credited with, if not inventing, then popularizing a wide variety of techniques that are now standard parts of film language. On the other hand, nobody wants to watch it, or even worse, be responsible for showing it somebody else, because it is very, very racist. Not in a, “well, it was a different time,” kind of way. It is racist in a “actively thinks Black people are horrible and will rape white women if given the slightest chance” kind of way. Not only are half the actors in blackface for the entire movie, those actors spend the movie doing the things that gave blackface its terrible connotations in the first place. One sequence shows a meeting of the South Carolina legislature during Reconstruction, made up of two-thirds Black people. They are shown drinking liquor, eating fried chicken, putting their bare feet up on the desks, and leering at white women.

I am a white person and not especially qualified to speak on this, but this type of completely ridiculous racism is nearly universally reviled these days. Mere connotations of one of the many things this movie openly does are enough to seriously mess up careers, and rightly so. And yet in 1915 it made this movie not only the first megahit in the history of the cinema, but gained the official approval of President Woodrow Wilson. His famous quote that it was “like history written with lightning” is likely apocryphal and did not appear in print until after his death, but there is no doubt that he screened the movie at the White House and loved it. Just in case you were not aware, President Wilson’s most famous legacy may have involved World War I and the League of Nations, but he was also a virulent racist, much moreso than the baseline racism of white dudes in his era, and this is just one more example. What I’m saying here is, The Birth of a Nation is in some ways cinema’s original sin. Impossible to ignore, as much as today’s movie business would very much like to.

The Birth of a Nation is a three-hour historical drama about the American Civil War, made at a time when your average commercial film likely came in around 20 minutes, if that. Director D.W. Griffith based the movie on a novel about the founding of the Ku Klux Klan that was popular at the time, and had actually been adapted into another film only a few years earlier. That is another one of the brain-melting bits of this movie that viewers who have just heard, “it’s pretty racist, but film history buffs sort of have to watch it” might not realize. The Ku Klux Klan are 100% the heroes in this movie, and though the organization from Reconstruction had for the most part died out by 1915, this movie is generally credited with single-handedly reviving the Klan. The movie was broken into two parts, because the distributors were genuinely worried no one would ever sit through a three hour movie. The first part basically depicts the start of the Civil War and the Confederacy’s eventual defeat, while the second half, the part that goes completely off the deep end, depicts the “many evils” of Reconstruction, showing it as an utter disaster in which naive Northerners let Southern Blacks oppress Southern Whites, until the Ku Klux Klan rides in to save the day.

The reason The Birth of a Nation has not been consigned to the dustbin of history is the way it uses, to great effect, many brand new filmmaking techniques that have since become an essential part of the movies we watch. As the critic Jonathan Kline wrote in 1,0001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, “virtually every film is beholden to [The Birth of a Nation] in one way or another.” In addition to its length, among those innovations popularized by the film were dramatic close-ups, fade-outs, the “iris shot” so popular in the silent era, large battle sequences with hundreds of extras, and, likely most famously, dramatic intercutting of multiple storylines. The latter technique is likely what a film student who hasn’t actually seen this movie will tell you on a test question if you ask them the big innovation of The Birth of a Nation. It is perhaps most obvious at the climax, where Griffith cuts back and forth between the occupying Black troops menacing most of the women and old people characters and trying to break down a barricaded door, and the Ku Klux Klan riding to the rescue. The cuts become more and more frequent as the sequence continues, building up the tension. Today this seems like very basic, obvious filmmaking technique, but Griffith is straight up inventing it here. It’s just he’s inventing it, again, with the Ku Klux Klan as the heroes.

The bizarre basic storylines in this movie seem so wild today that it is worth remembering that this isn’t a modern world imposing its morals onto a different time. The Birth of a Nation was extremely controversial and caused widespread protests, and even riots, at the time of its release. The NAACP organized nationwide protests outside theaters showing the movie, at least one of which ended in a riot. One New York rabbi was quoted in newspapers at the time as commenting that the movie was “an indescribably foul and loathsome libel on a race of human beings.” It was in response to this that Griffith and the film’s other backers did things like screen the movie for the President and members of Congress. The party line was that this was just a straightforward depiction of history as it actually happened.

Whether the people defending the film’s accuracy actually believed what they were saying is impossible to know, though it is at least possible that Griffith himself did. Raised by a former Confederate officer in Kentucky, he insisted the movie wasn’t racist at all, that he couldn’t understand what anyone was talking about. His next film, Intolerance, was essentially a response to those who refused to “tolerate” his great work. It was even longer and included much of the same cast. In the meantime, the controversy did nothing to slow down the emergence of The Birth of a Nation as America’s first real box office juggernaut. The movie played for over 40 weeks at one theater in New York, despite ticket prices being set at $2.20 each (more than fifty bucks today). It remained, in just basic dollar figures, the highest grosser at the American box office until Gone With the Wind (a movie with surprisingly similar subject matter), and one recent estimate adjusting for inflation put the movie’s total take at the equivalent of $1.8 billion in modern day money.

I’ll probably regret saying this, but I at least hope that no one today could watch The Birth of a Nation and be persuaded by its propaganda into thinking this is what actually happened. Beyond the completely insane levels of racism on display, the remove is just too great. Even taken aside from its connotations, the blackface in nearly every scene this movie continuously took me, as a modern viewer, out of the story. It just would never register for me that the actors in Blackface were supposed to be playing Black people. A minimum of a dozen times I thought “what’s wrong with that actor’s face?” They just look like white people wearing weird makeup, which is what they are. It’s probably important to remember that they weren’t really supposed to actually look like Black people. It was part of the contract, so to speak, with prejudiced white audiences that, even if the characters were supposed to be Black, the people on screen were actually acceptable white people. This is made more bizarre by the fact that there are some actual Black people, mostly extras, in the movie, which means that in many scenes the people in Blackface are just hanging out with the actual Black people in the background like everything is totally normal. I halfway expected there to be a title card reading, “Greetings, fellow Black people!”

The Birth of a Nation was on the original 1998 AFI Top 100 list, and in that 1,001 Movies book, so it was on my list for this site. But should YOU watch it? I dunno. As has been pointed out by many others, especially in recent years, Griffith’s follow-up Intolerance is both much more watchable today (and in my opinion a way better movie), almost racism free, and contains all the same innovations you can see in The Birth of a Nation. It is not a coincidence that, in the ten years between the 1998 AFI list and its subsequent version, The Birth of a Nation dropped all the way off, being replaced by Intolerance. So I would whole-heartedly recommend the latter movie to everyone, while the former can probably be skipped by everyone but us completists. It certainly deserves to be.

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