Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: BoaN

The Birth of a Nation, Part X (The Century Awards: 1915)

The year 1915 represents the transition in my Periodization from the “Nickelodeon Era” to the “Classical Silent Period.” I took this, partly at least, from David Kalat’s description of silent movie history in his commentary to Fantômas, one of the first movies I watched on reviving this project and beginning this blog. But, the more I have watched, the more convinced I have become that 1915 really does represent a profound turning-point, especially in terms of the American film industry. While there are some standout movies from 1914, even some really good American feature-length films, most of what you see from that year still carries the baggage of “early film” and looks slow, stagey, and static by modern standards. This is especially true if we eliminate French, Italian, and Russian films from consideration. In 1915, we start getting feature-length stories that draw us in, give compelling narratives, and use the camera creatively. The best movies of this year can be put up against any but the very best of later work and still come out looking at decent.

Birth_of_a_Nation BerangerTraditional film histories would give most of the credit for this to D.W. Griffith and “The Birth of a Nation.” Everything that came after it was based on it, they’ll tell you, and film, or at least American film, would have remained in its stodgy and uncreative pigeonhole without Griffith and his genius. Folks who’ve been reading this blog for a while know that I regard that narrative with some distrust: it looks to me like at least some of it is because of Griffith’s own (very effective) ballyhoo and hype, and some of it is because for far too long, far too many of the people writing about film in this period had access to far too few movies of the period to make a reasonable comparison. Generations of film students were told by their professors that this was the “best” movie of the period, and, not having seen much else from before 1915 except maybe a Méliès and a couple of Edisons, they pretty much swallowed the standard story and wrote all their books based on it. In the era before home video, it took a lot of hard work to do the kind of research necessary to challenge this view.

Birth of a Nation Sheet MusicAs much as I believe that the traditional narrative deserves debunking, though, it’s possible to go too far. There’s one piece of evidence that any Griffith-fan can call to service that I simply cannot refute: this was a hugely popular film, a “blockbuster” by any standard of judgment, and a tremendous critical success that convinced many skeptics that the motion pictures really were a serious art form. People paid up to $2.00 to see it, as much as they did for live theater events, and they saw it in “traditional” theaters rather than nickelodeons, accompanied by a full orchestra and seated by uniformed ushers. Indeed, I suspect that part of the reason for its popularity and impact is that it drew many casual movie-goers or non-movie-goers to its screenings, who were the more impressed with its spectacle for not being accustomed to how advanced the other movies of the day already were.

Acknowledging this fact forces me to admit that the movie must have had an influence: if only because the reality of Griffith’s commercial success after taking what most thought was an insanely expensive risk influenced the way studios responded to other directors who now wanted to make large, expensive feature films. The investment now looked like a good idea, and it has to be said that more studios made more and longer movies after “Birth” came out than they had before it. They also started to push the “genius” and importance of their best directors in their ad copy, following Griffith’s self-promoting example. In other words, reluctantly, I have to admit that, yes, “The Birth of a Nation” is at least partly responsible for the improvement in quality we see in American filmmaking during and after the year 1915. There, I said it: there’s some merit to the traditional narrative after all.

12068530171690234341director chair.svg.medAll of which is a VERY long-winded introduction to my topic: what am I going to do with “The Birth of a Nation” in this year’s Century Awards? It’s a problem I’ve been thinking about all year. I’ve been tempted to just ignore the problem and let it go away, or to write it off as a non-problem. “Birth” came out at the beginning of 1915, and by the end you’ve got movies like “The Cheat,” “Alias Jimmy Valentine,” “Regeneration,” and “Carmen” which clearly trump “Birth” in any technical category. But, is that really fair or accurate?

If the Century Awards represent my attempt to guess what the Motion Picture Academy would have done if it was in existence 100 years ago, “The Birth of a Nation” would have to win hands down. It was the movie on everyone’s lips at the time, it was the holy grail everyone else wanted to recreate, it was huge. It would have swept any awards given by the industry that year or the next. It would have made “Titanic” look like an also-ran. Again, it may not make me happy, but that’s what the historical evidence suggests.

Birth of a Nation3

But, if the Century Awards represent my own growing understanding about film history over time as a result of watching the movies and applying my current awareness and education to make judgment calls, that’s another thing altogether. I gave “Kid Auto Races” an award last year, not because people flocked to see it then, or because critics at the time said much about it, but because 100 years later I can see that Charlie Chaplin’s “little tramp” is one of the most iconic costumes of all time. I can see that “Birth of a Nation” was an over-rated film today, and I can certainly see that it was a hateful and racist production, so why should I feel compelled to give it awards I don’t think it deserves? I have a policy on my goodreads account that I don’t give star-ratings to materials written to promote racist viewpoints, and I can carry that over to this blog as well. “The Birth of a Nation” isn’t going to get any awards from me, whatever contemporary film makers might have done. You want to give it one, start your own blog.

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The Birth of a Nation, Part IX

Last month, I felt that I didn’t have a lot more to say about “The Birth of a Nation.” This month I find that I do have a few things to add, but we’re still winding down the series.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

First, Woodrow Wilson: Fritzi Kramer at Movies Silently recently posted a debunking of the dual myth that BoaN was “the first movie screened at the White House” as well as “the first feature film” that is generally very good and covers most of the important ground. I think she goes a little too far in suggesting that the movie was screened to consider censoring its potentially divisive content (the source she referred me to on this didn’t back her up, and there was no precedent giving the President the power to censor movies), but the important points are correct: “Cabiria” had been shown at the White House the previous summer, Wilson agreed somewhat reluctantly to the screening on the condition that there be NO publicity about it (a promise that D.W. Griffith never intended to keep), and he certainly did NOT call it “history writ in lightning” or whatever.

Thomas Dixon

Thomas Dixon

Lest we be accused of being overly fair to Wilson, however, there are a few other points to make here. First of all, he was an old school chum of Thomas Dixon, the author of the play “The Clansman,” and it appears he approved the screening as a favor to his buddy. Dixon, let’s remember, was the driving force behind the racist content of “The Birth of a Nation” (William K. Everson claims the play was even more racist than the movie, if such a thing is imaginable), and was a true believer in the heroism of the KKK and the justifiability of slavery. In his discussion of the correspondence between them, which continued during the Wilson presidency, Dick Lehr mentions no instance of Wilson confronting or even chiding Dixon for his views. Furthermore, it was at Wilson’s instigation that Jim Crow segregation was introduced in the Post Office and other federal agencies, to Dixon’s outspoken approval. All of which is to say that, whatever the conditions and significance of the White House screening, Wilson was every bit as much integrated into the predominant racist culture of his time as others who, unlike him, openly praised the film.

GriffithDWSecond, a bit more on the origin of the Griffith Myth. I’ve been reading Seductive Cinema by James Card, who is somewhat of a curmudgeon about film studies in general, and Griffith-worship is among his peeves. On pages 32-34 of this book, he talks about an ad that Griffith took out in the New York Dramatic Mirror in December, 1913, less than two months after he departed from Biograph. Griffith used this opportunity to proclaim himself “[p]roducer of all the great Biograph successes, revolutionizing Motion Picture drama and founding the modern technique of the art.” This is pretty much what his fans still say about him today, but it’s interesting that anyone would have accepted it at the time. Card points out that “[i]n 1913, filmgoers were unaware of the names of any motion picture directors.” In other words, he was the first to proclaim himself a genius, and people went along with it because they didn’t know any better.

DW_Griiffith2But, I think there’s even more going on. In July 1915, while “The Birth of a Nation” was on top of the world, setting new standards for monetary and critical success, Maurice Tourneur gave an interview to the New York Clipper in which he was asked who was the greatest director of the time, and he quickly and unequivocally named Griffith. When I read it, it broke my heart a little. Here was the director of “Alias Jimmy Valentine” and “The Wishing Ring” praising a man whose talent was clearly inferior! It’s as if Ridley Scott said that Joel Schumacher was his favorite director. I think there’s a kind of strategy at work, however. By taking out that ad, Griffith had put directors into the public spotlight. A director who wanted to be taken “seriously” had to affirm his genius, because that was the best way to affirm by proxy that directors were important figures in filmmaking. Between the ad and the runaway success of “Birth of a Nation,” it was career suicide to say anything else at that time. Griffith’s supremacy was now an entrenched myth, which would last a century or more.

The Birth of a Nation, Part VIII

Birth_of_a_Nation_Poster_-_SeattleWhen I started this year, it was my intention to map out a series of 12 articles on the release of D.W. Griffith’s nationalist epic, “The Birth of a Nation.” Each would cover a different aspect of the film and the whole would be a cohesive essay on the movie. Because of the claimed importance of the movie, it seemed like dedicating the whole year to its study was justified

Having reached August, however, I don’t find that I have all that much more to say about it. Here’s a quick summary of what I learned so far this year:

  • I don’t much care for the movie, either in terms of content or artistry.
  • It was a runaway smash hit and was praised to the sky at the time, by filmgoers, by critics, and by other directors.
  • Film historians have credited it with all kinds of amazing innovations, most of which had been developed much earlier, and will bend over backward to defend its content, ignoring flagrant racism with lame excuses like “that’s how things were then,” or, perhaps worse, will deliberately cover up its actual message.
  • Its release and distribution is directly linked to the rise of the second Klan in America.
  • D.W. Griffith agreed with its message and either couldn’t understand or refused to believe that it promoted divisiveness and hate in the country.

GriffithDWAnd while we’re on the subject of Griffith, here’s what I’m seeing:

  • He was a good, perhaps great director, but not the superhero he gets made out to be.
  • He is consistently credited with innovations (like the close-up, the fade-out, etc) that others did first and he appears to have accepted that credit while alive, either deliberately or mistakenly muddying the historical record.
  • His best work, and certainly his most innovative/original, was done while working in short format at Biograph. He never seems to have learned how to tell longer stories well, even though he desperately wanted to the whole time.
  • His most important contributions seem to have been in the field of editing, specifically in terms of showing simultaneous action across space. He was not the first to do this, either, however he did develop techniques that made it far more effective. In the best examples, such as “An Unseen Enemy,” cross-cutting makes the whole story work.

AlalogosmallThere’s just one more piece to all of this I want to talk about, and it’s the hardest one for me to approach: the question of censorship. I’m a librarian, and I’m therefore professionally dedicated to combating censorship in all forms. Even apart from that, I’ve always been one to fall on the side of “freedom of speech at any cost.” Certainly I would not want to see it become illegal or impossible for people to see “The Birth of a Nation” today – there’s too much to be learned from it. Honestly, I think if more people saw it, we’d have a better chance of getting a re-evaluation of its historical significance and meaning.

NaacplogoBut, what about back then? The NAACP fought hard battles to keep the movie from opening in various cities, and I’m very grateful to them for doing so. If they hadn’t spoken up, there would be no evidence that, yes, in fact people at that time did find this movie offensive, and their wishes were conveniently ignored. The “it was just that way back then” narrative would succeed. How else could they have made their point known except by trying to censor it? They could have (and did) try the route of “counter-speech,” making their own movies to show the value and worth of African Americans, or correcting the record on the Civil War. But, none of them even came close to capturing the popular imagination the way “Birth of a Nation” did. It’s easy to talk about counter-speech being the best way to fight hate speech, but the reality is that you don’t just make a blockbuster because you happen have the moral high ground or the truth on your side. It takes money, professional connections, artistic skills and distribution infrastructure, which are not easy to come by. In the end, the NAACP lost most of its battles, or won them technically, but still were unable to enforce their wins. “Birth of a Nation” was released all over the country, but not without a fight, and that fight remains part of the historical record.

Birth of a Nation7Am I saying that the world would be a better place if “Birth of a Nation” had not been released, or had been restricted to a clandestine release? I don’t think so. It would have been nice if the 20s KKK had not had access to such a powerful recruiting tool, but there probably wasn’t any way to stop that. The fact that the movie was released, and that it became such a runaway hit that nearly everyone in film agreed it was brilliant for generations is, in fact, an important reflection of the times. I’m grateful to the NAACP, not because they wanted to suppress speech, but because they used their campaign to remind Americans then and now that there was more than one side to the story. Even a campaign for censorship is itself a form of speech, and deserves to be listened to as much for what it says as for what it tries to stop others from saying.

Birth of a NationWhat disappoints me about modern historians and classic film fans is that they simply shrug off these complexities and accept the dominant narrative as the only one. “Classic” movies in America are generally defined as being those made during the period when the fewest non-white people were on the screen, and those that were there had the most stereotyped roles. This is something that needs to be challenged. Enjoying or studying old movies shouldn’t entail accepting the ideology of the period in which they were made without question. It’s possible for Griffith to have been both an innovator and a racist. The world is a complicated place, and understanding it requires a willingness to be honest about your evidence, and keep asking new questions, and, most of all, being ready to change your mind.

That’s all I have to say about this movie for now. The last question, how I’m going to handle it in terms of the “Century Awards,” I leave for next month.

Birth of a Nation, Part VII

David_Wark_Griffith_portrait

This month, I’m going to talk a bit about how historians have treated “The Birth of a Nation,” and where I stand in relation to that historiography as I proceed with this project. As it happens, fate placed in my hand a copy of William K. Everson’s book American Silent Film recently, and, though I hadn’t meant to read much of it, I realized I needed to look seriously at what he had to say about D.W. Griffith and “Birth” because he came from such a radically different position, and because he represents what might be seen as the “standard narrative” for the last forty years or so.

 American Silent Film

Before I get into where I differ with Everson, let’s start with his importance. Prior to his work, film historians often dismissed the silent era as “primitive” or even handicapped by the lack of dialogue. Everson proposed that we think of the silent film as an art form unto itself, “as different to sound film as painting is to photography,” and he was one of the first to suggest that silent film had achieved a level of art far in advance of where it would be in the early years of sound, in other words that the introduction of sound represented a serious setback for cinematography and artistry, one which took years to overcome. These are now pretty well accepted arguments, especially among cinematographers and film historians.

The other thing I should mention is that he had less to work with than we do today, due to the amount of recovered and remastered silent films that have been made available since the 70s. At several points in his book, he predicts that there will be relatively few new discoveries in the future, due to the fragility of nitrate originals and the increasing distance in time since their production. He could not possibly have predicted the power that digitization would have to restore then-unwatchable prints, nor the good fortune that film preservationists have had in finding fortunate survivors in the intervening years.

 GriffithDW

So, what does he say? Essentially, he argues that D.W. Griffith was the only serious artist in early cinema, that everything changed with the release of “The Birth of a Nation” and that everything that came afterwards just built on what he had achieved. Nearly every director he considers worthwhile was “apprenticed” to Griffith at some point, or “imitated” his innovations. He refers to “Birth” as “the full flowering of Griffith’s art” argues that it “established movies as an international art and an international industry almost overnight.” His argument is not based on erroneous ideas that “Birth of a Nation” was the “first” film to include Griffith’s “film grammar;” for this he discusses the Biograph shorts and argues that Griffith perfected his art before making “Birth,” but that by putting all of his talents into an epic, big-budget feature film, he broke through the wall that had kept film simple and un-imaginative for twenty years, establishing it forever as a serious form of expression. So far as content, he claims that the film’s “controversy [is] often artificially created and sustained” and has drowned out appreciation of its accomplishments. He argues that the source, Thomas Dixon’s “The Clansman” was far more racist, and that Griffith dialed back some of that racism for the screen, that the use of white men in blackface was standard practice at the time and necessary because Girffith didn’t know enough African American actors, and that Griffith’s historical perspective was supported by legitimate historians in the period he made it. He accuses the NAACP of “harassing” every showing of the film for over fifty years with “letters…indicating that the writers had never seen the film they were protesting so vehemently.”

 Toms Coons

Before I discuss this any further, I want to pause and take a look at another book from the 70s, Donald Bogle’s book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks. Bogle is an African American historian whose book explores the history of African American portrayals in film – essentially arguing that all of them were built on stereotypes, and making the point that African American actors always had to play against the stereotypes they were assigned. What does he have to say about “The Birth of a Nation?” Well, he does deplore the content, saying that it originated the stereotype of the “Buck” (through Gus) and also contributed to the “Tragic Mulatto” and the “Tom” with other blackface characters. But, he also says “[i]n almost every way, ‘The Birth of a Nation’was a stupendous undertaking, unlike any film that had preceded it.” He actually goes farther than Everson, claiming that it “altered the entire course of American moviemaking, developing the close-up, cross-cutting, rapid-fire editing, the iris, the split screen shot, and realistic and impressionistic lighting.” Bogle is actually more historically inept in heaping undue praise onto a movie he sees as damaging to African Americans than Everson is in defending it! It only makes matter worse that I’m quoting from the 1998 edition, by which time Bogle had had 25 years to correct these errors. With enemies like these, why would Griffith need friends?

 DW Griffiths Biograph Shorts

So, what we see here is the way that historians have over-played the importance of both Griffith and “Birth” for generations now. With Everson, we also see the desperate justifications for its content, although he is to be credited – unlike Martin Scorsese at least he didn’t try to hide it completely. With this project, I’ve discovered that there were plenty of films as good as “Birth” both before and afterwards and that, yes, other directors did see the motion picture as art and contribute to its development as well as Griffith. One of the reasons this distortion has taken place is that, for various reasons, the Biograph roster of films happened to be the best preserved and easiest to study for many years. It’s still easier to find a Griffith shorts collection than to do a thorough study of Selig pictures, or the career of Lois Weber or Maurice Tourneur. To say nothing of foreign films. And that’s another point. Everson’s book is called “American Silent Film,” but in arguing that Griffith established movies as an “international art form” he needs to take into account the huge distribution of European, especially French, movies in the US prior to World War One.

 Birth_of_a_Nation_theatrical_poster

I’ve discussed the content elsewhere, but so far as the art of cinema is concerned my own argument is this: Griffith did achieve one important “first” with “The Birth of a Nation.” For the first time in cinema history, he placed the importance of advertising and public relations above the importance of the film itself. People remembered “Birth” as the groundbreaking event it has been commemorated as because Griffith TOLD them it was. They shelled out $2.00 to see it, arguably the equivalent of paying $40 or more to see a movie today. He brought a new class of movie viewers to the new movie palaces, and gave them a spectacle that included a live orchestra, ushers in costume, and, yes, an exciting epic of a film. Not a film that stands up as unique to anyone who looks at what else was available at the time, but that’s exactly the point: his audience didn’t go to the movies before “Birth” was released! They saw “Birth” as the “first” all those things because they thought that moving pictures up to that point had been trivial and unimportant. Griffith achieved a publicity stunt that continued to convince the elites who create the narratives about movies for the next 100 years. My argument is that the time has come to challenge this.

The Birth of a Nation, Part VI

Birth of a Nation

We’ve reached the middle of the year that is the centenary of this controversial and problematic movie, and I went back to review what I’ve written so far. I realized that I have yet to provide the novice viewer with a basic summary of what you see when you watch “The Birth of a Nation,” and that I’ve referred to certain things (like “Gus” or “the scene in the House of Representatives”) without providing any context. Therefore, this post will be a simple re-counting of the storyline and action of the film. I don’t think there’s much danger of losing sight of the underlying message of the movie: The content is precisely what makes it such naked propaganda for the racial order of the old South. I’m not going to worry here about “spoilers,” so if you plan to watch it and care about such things, you’ve been forewarned. Besides, Griffith based it all on “actual historical fact,” so there won’t be any surprises for history buffs.

 Birth of a Nation1

The movie sets the stage in a similar manner to the earlier D.W. Griffith short, “The Fugitive,” but with the advantage of more time to develop character. Two families are presented, one Northern and one Southern, in the period before the outbreak of War. The Northern family is the Stonemans, and it is led by the corrupt abolitionist Congressman Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis, also in “The Avenging Conscience” and later “The Hoodlum”). Stoneman has two sons and a daughter, Elsie (Lillian Gish, long a staple in Griffith’s work, including “The Unseen Enemy” and “The Mothering Heart”). The Southern family is the Camerons, headed by the aging Dr. Cameron (Spottiswoode Aitken, who has my favorite first name ever, and was in “The Battle” and “The Avenging Conscience”). The Doctor has two daughters, Margaret (Miriam Cooper, later in “Intolerance” and “Kindred of the Dust”) and Flora (Mae Marsh, whom we know from “The Battle at Elderbush Gulch” and “Judith of Bethulia”), as well as two sons, the most notable of which is the elder, Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall, who starred in “The Avenging Conscience” and “The House with Closed Shutters”).

 Birth of a Nation2

In the happy times before the war, the Stonemans come to visit the Camerons, and, being white and of the same class, get along very well. Various potential matches are made, with sons of the Stoneman house showing interest in the Cameron girls, and Ben clearly interested in Elsie’s photograph, as well as a developing bro-mance between the younger lads, which involves a lot of wrestling and fisticuffs. Along the way, we also see happy African American slaves at work in the fields and dancing spontaneous jigs on their generous lunch breaks to show their appreciation for their white masters. Then the elder Stoneman is manipulated by his mixed-race mistress into believing that a white Senator raped her while in his home, and the Stoneman visitors are recalled home to the North (it is implied though not stated that this is the real reason that war breaks out).

 Birth_of_a_Nation_war_scene

As with the many Griffith Civil War shorts I’ve discussed before, we get more tearful farewells and proud marches as the young men sign up for their respective armies. This sequence, which covers the war itself, is the focus of much of the praise this movie has received, although I think that Griffith and other directors had actually managed more emotionally effective and exciting battle scenes on lower budgets before this. One sequence involves a group of African American militiamen attacking the Cameron house and looting it, a gross distortion of the brave and disciplined service of such units during the war. At this time, the senior Cameron is struck down by the “scalawag white Captain” of the unit. The part that really stood out to audiences then and critics since is the massive “Siege of Petersburg” battle, in which Walthall’s character earns the moniker “The Little Colonel” due to his bravely charging the Yankee lines long after his men have fallen to their bullets. Again, I think there were better battles, this one actually relies too much on long-shots covered in smoke to hide how few extras Griffith had to hand, but it is one of the big claims of the film to large-scale spectacle. The bros wind up killing each other in combat and the Little Colonel is captured after his mad dash at the trenches.

Birth of a Nation3

Having built the audience up with the thrills of combat and women in jeopardy, Griffith now takes a bit of a breath, and gives the audience a sense that, despite the tragedies and injustices, things may work out after all. Abraham Lincoln is portrayed as “the Great Heart,” who will give the defeated South a fair deal, in spite of the insane radical wing of his party, led by Stoneman, who want to give African Americans legal equality. While in convalescence, Ben Cameron meets Elsie Stoneman working as a nurse in the military hospital. She is as taken with him and he with she, but their hearts are broken by the knowledge that he is to be executed as a saboteur. Mrs. Cameron now steps in, after making a Yankee guard feel guilty enough to permit her to visit her son, she goes off to see Lincoln himself and beg for clemency, which he grants. Everything seems to be returning to normal.

 Raoul Walsh

Enter Raoul Walsh (who later directed “Regeneration” and “The Roaring Twenties”) as John Wilkes Booth, a skulking villain with a mad plan. The assassination of Lincoln is, to my mind, one of the better parts of the movie, with a beautifully re-constructed Ford’s Theater set which apparently had no roof in order to allow the use of natural light. Walsh shoots Lincoln, jumps to the stage, speaks his famous line, and exits dramatically.

Birth of a Nation4

Now we enter the Second Act, the most critical part so far as Griffith and Thomas Dixon, the author of the story, are concerned. This is the depiction of the Reconstruction, the terrible dark time in which the South was punished for losing a war. Stoneman and his cronies are in control of the government, and their twisted ideas of racial equality are forced onto the South, despite all the indignities this causes the white population. Men are forced to salute African American veterans (a reversal of the situation in “Martyrs of the Alamo”), women are accosted in the street, and no white southerner is safe.

 Birth of a Nation5

The characters of Silas Lynch (played by George Siegmann, from “The Avenging Conscience” and “Intolerance”), a mixed-race carpetbagger, and Gus (Walter Long, from “Martyrs of the Alamo,” and “The Avenging Conscience”), a “renegade negro” (white in blackface) occupation officer are introduced. Lynch comes down to Piedmont along with Stoneman, to see what a good job of reconstructing the South “his people” are doing, and gets elected Lieutenant Governor by seeing to it that whites aren’t able to vote. In fact, the South Carolina House of Representatives is now overflowing with African American representatives, who have the audacity to eat fried chicken and drink liquor in that hallowed hall. One new congressman goes a bit too far when he takes off his shoes and puts his feet on the desk; a motion is passed forcing him to wear shoes.

 Birth-of-a-nation-klan-and-black-man

The Little Colonel hasn’t given up the fight, however, and when he sees some black children frightened by a “ghost” (another child under a sheet), he has the brilliant inspiration to form the Ku Klux Klan. His first opportunity to enact justice comes when his sister, Flora, runs across Gus in the woods while out fetching water. Gus insists that she marry him, a freedman with full civil rights, and she runs away. This is probably the most objectionable single scene in the movie (it was certainly the one the NAACP cited most frequently in protests), in which the blackface Gus leers and menaces, while the innocent Mae Marsh shrinks in fear. Finally, to avoid being defiled, she hurls herself off a cliff. Ben rallies the Klan and kills Gus, dumping his body on Lynch’s doorstep.

Shut down all the garbage mashers on the detention level!

Shut down all the garbage mashers on the detention level!

Lynch and the reconstructionists respond with force, attempting to arrest Dr. Cameron when they can’t find his son. He, along with his daughter and some loyal African American servants (former slaves) flee to a cabin in a field outside of town. This is intercut with Stoneman’s final upbraiding by Lynch, who has decided to marry his daughter Elsie. Lynch traps Elsie in a back room, but she is able to get word to the Klan. Now the local militia surrounds the house the Camerons are hiding in, Dr. Cameron stands poised to bash his daughter’s brains out rather than let her fall into the hands of the enemy.

 Birth of a Nation7

The Little Colonel leads a heroic charge of robed Klansmen to save, first Elsie, then his father and sister. This is probably the other scene most often cited as innovative and exciting, after the battle of Petersburg. The camerawork is good, with tracking shots following the horses at high speed and several shots of horses charging directly towards the audience. The crosscutting of the two scenes does heighten the tension, but it’s hard today to imagine anyone cheering for hooded Klansmen (and a little frightening, to think of our grandparents doing so).

What a free election looks like, to D.W. Griffith.

What a free election looks like, to D.W. Griffith.

This is followed by a brief celebration and a picture of the new order. On election day, when African Americans prepare to go out and vote, they find mounted Klansmen in front of their doors. They wisely choose to go back in. Terror has won the day. Then there’s a pleasant double wedding of the surviving heroes (Elsie and Ben, Margaret and the largely irrelevant Phil Stoneman), and it ends on an overblown and seemingly hypocritical religious note.

 Birth_of_a_Nation_theatrical_poster

So, that’s the story of the film people raved about in 1915, and which people have defended and praised ever since in the name of “film history.” The questions this blog keeps asking are, “Whose history?” and “What does this heritage suggest about film as a medium?”

The Birth of a Nation, Part V

For this entry in my series on D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic, I want to speak about the contemporary reception to the movie. Up to now, I’ve been arguing that the importance of the movie has been over-rated, often at the expense of an honest assessment of its content and what it says about the history of cinema. It wasn’t as big a technical breakthrough as has often been claimed, nor was it the “first feature film” (it wasn’t even Griffith’s first feature film), nor the “first blockbuster” or really much of the first anything. So, why do so many historians and filmmakers seem to regard it as such a big deal?

MPP Birth Sale

Well, part of that answer starts with the media campaign and critical response in 1915. To confirm just how big a deal it was at the time, I went and looked at the Moving Picture World issues for the end of 1915 and searched for its name. The movie actually had its first screenings in January, and officially premiered in LA in February, and movies at this time usually ran for a week or two at most, so just finding mentions of it being held over in New York week after week in October, November, and December was already an indicator of just how big a smash it was. There were still cities where it was opening for the first time as well, and these would list prices from 50 cents to $2 for seats (a lot of money in 1915) and packed houses of 2000 people or more. Many of these people, it was presumed, had already seen the picture in neighboring cities, or when traveling to larger urban centers. It broke records for screenings and attendance in various places during this time. In October, a story broke about a distributor paying $250,000 for the rights to it in 16 states, which was reported as “the largest transaction ever conducted for the rights to a traveling attraction in the history of the American theater” (later stories suggest that this may have been exaggerated).

MPP Simplex ad

Beyond the box office, I found that “The Birth of a Nation” was also treated as a major artistic achievement. Even passing mentions of the film frequently referred to it as “the big Griffith spectacle,” “this wonderful feature,” a “masterpiece,” or “an immense picture creation.” Studios compared their new releases to it, claiming them as “second only to The Birth of a Nation” or a movie with action that “outdoes ‘The Birth of a Nation’ in thrills.” One film was released as “a Birth of a Nation among children’s films,” and a new Mutual comedy was touted as “The Mirth of a Nation.” The Simplex projector company proudly stated that its machines were “used exclusively” for screenings of “The Birth of a Nation,” which were referred to as “the greatest production in the world.” The movie appealed to people who didn’t usually praise film at the time: the Minneapolis Superintendent of Schools is quoted as saying that “all children should see such pictures” and a Wisconsin pastor “thanks God” he lives in an age when he can see it.

MPP Thank God

All of this despite the fact that the movie met with resistance from the NAACP everywhere it opened, and that African Americans tried to get it banned anywhere they had a voice. The Moving Picture World, of course, was strongly opposed to censorship, and it’s even possible that to some degree their support of the film was a statement in favor of freedom of expression. But, the word “censorship” didn’t have the stigma then that it does today, a great many people did feel that there should be some kind of state control over what could be presented to audiences in theaters. Yet, again and again, and in spite of some strident arguments for the potential harm that could be caused by the racist material in the movie, white city counselors, official censor boards, and higher government officials passed the film, allowing its performance despite the objections of a part of their constituency.

MPP Mirth

The other aspect of all this that seems puzzling is that, when I look at the film now, it really isn’t all that impressive; least of all by comparison to other movies coming out in the US at the end of 1915. Maybe in February and March of that year there wasn’t much to beat it, but by the last months you’ve got “Carmen,” “The Cheat,” “The Italian,” and “Alias Jimmy Valentine,” all much more technically advanced, visually sophisticated, and narratively complex movies. Yet people at the time were still holding it up as the measure of cinematic greatness, and apparently being taken seriously, to judge again by box office success.

I may need several more essays to discuss usefully why this should be the case, but it begins with two points: white middle class audiences at the time lived in an environment where there was “nothing wrong” with the racial views the movie espoused, and Griffith successfully exploited the desire of white Americans everywhere to celebrate their national and racial pride. Reports of the record-breaking screenings in Portland, Oregon make much of “a score of horsemen clad in Ku Klux regalia [who] were a common sight on the streets” during the run (it will be recalled that Oregon had the highest per capital Klan membership in the nation only a few years later). The movie was shown at elaborate “movie palaces” or high-class dramatic theaters, with a full orchestra and uniformed ushers, not in second-rate nickelodeons. Moreover, it was one of the most explicitly nationalist features to come out of the US in that year. Other nations, especially Italy and Russia, had gotten in ahead in terms of making nationalist epics, and the Italian ones, at least, had been released in the US to the amazement of viewers. But they were the stories of foreigners, and I think Americans wanted to feel that their history was as important as the Punic Wars. Griffith gave them that, and whether his telling of it was true or not, it did conform with the historical myths that many believed, or wanted to believe, about their country. That this meant trampling on the dignity of a minority was far less important at a time in American history when African American enfranchisement was still tenuous, at best.

Birth of a Nation (1915) Part IV

The Rise of the Second KKK

Ku_Klux_Klan_members_march_down_Pennsylvania_Avenue_in_Washington,_D.C._in_1928

One thing that is often mentioned, but rarely examined, in discussion of the movie “The Birth of a Nation,” is the coincidence that it was released in the same year that an enterprising Southerner, William Joseph Simmons, re-established the organization of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia. While it got off to a shaky start, this “second Klan” (often referred to by historians as “The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s”), rose to become a powerful political lobby, able to muster thousands of hooded marchers for a demonstration in Washington, DC, in 1928. It is estimated that as many as five million Americans joined during the decade, although most of them were fairly short-term members. I would really like to see a proper historical study documenting the links between the new Klan and the release of “The Birth of a Nation,” but for now this essay (derived from secondary sources) will have to do.

The original Ku Klux Klan had been a resistance organization for white Southerners during the period of Reconstruction. It consisted of loosely allied vigilante bands, who used terror against Northerners, Radical Republicans, freed African Americans and their Southern allies to re-establish an order of white supremacy and the control of traditional elites in the South. It was ultimately suppressed by order of the Federal Government, and this led to its abandonment by its most powerful supporters, who sought more above-ground, legal means to accomplish the same ends. Southern Democrats turned to two different means to accomplish this: the popularization of the myth of the “Lost Cause” of the South and the establishment of “Jim Crow” laws that were designed to keep African Americans in a position of separation and subjugation vis-à-vis whites. Since it was pretended that Jim Crow was based on “separate but equal” (it wasn’t), these laws had some success spreading to non-Confederate areas and even began to be introduced by Woodrow Wilson at the Federal Government level by the time of the early teens.

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Meanwhile, the “Lost Cause” had been successful in changing the narrative about the war. It wasn’t about slavery, but about a noble, if anachronistic, “way of life” that the South maintained while the North progressed into capitalism and industrialization. The South had only wanted to preserve its honorable and decent lifestyle when it was forced to secede. This is the narrative that Thomas Dixon’s book and play The Clansman repeated, and it was read and accepted widely by white people all over the country. Another believer was Simmons, who had been a failure at most of what he had put his hand to in life: medical student, minister, soldier, yet he had retained a sense of destiny in himself. Simmons was also a member of several fraternal organizations, and when he decided in 1915 to “revive” the KKK, this was the model he chose, as opposed to a secret terror group.

Nowadays, men who join fraternal societies like the Masons or the Oddfellows are increasingly rare and rather marginal figures. But, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these kinds of groups were dominant. Men associated, outside of their homes, with other men for professional and social reasons, usually under the auspices of an “Order” of some kind with ritual trappings, sometimes with costumes and secret signals. It’s been estimated that at the high point there were some 2000 separate lodge organizations in the USA, with a membership that may have extended to 40% of the population. In addition to networking and social activities, lodges organized charitable work and provided religious and secular educational events. While fraternal organizations were declining by the beginning of World War One, this tradition was still far stronger than it is today.

All which gives the Second Klan a rather different flavor than the First, and I think has led some historians to mis-read its nature. Writers at the time and soon afterward often confused the two Klans, and assumed that the membership of Simmons’s organization was poor, uneducated, Southern, and rural. Examination of membership rosters and other information challenged this idea, beginning in the 1960s. It turned out that many members were middle class, urban, and educated. The largest numerical membership was in Indiana and the highest per capita was in Oregon – definitely not the South. A new school of “Klan revisionists” arose who started taking this into account and doing regional studies of unlikely Klan strongholds like Buffalo, New York, El Paso, Texas, and Salt Lake City. They found that Klan concerns often lined up with Progressive issues like temperance and educational reform.

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I personally think the revisionists wound up going a little too far in starting to see the Second Klan as “nice” people. They started to argue that white supremacy was only one of several interests of the organization, and that most of its methods were above-ground and legal. Well, it depends where you look. Nancy MacLean (who is sometimes called a “re-revisionsist”) studied the KKK in Georgia and found that they were engaged in lynching and terror operations after all. They just did it with the collusion of powerful middle class lawyers and judges and police officials who conveniently looked the other way. Illegal actions like cross burnings on other people’s property, public tarring and feathering, or vandalism were consistently a part of its activities even outside the South. At the high point of the Klan’s power, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, a law explicitly written to limit the number of “non-white” (including Southern and Eastern European) entrants into the country. This was a triumph for their racist position on immigration. And that “educational reform” the KKK was so good about supporting usually meant closing down Catholic schools, because Catholicism was an enemy of “democracy” as the Klan defined it.

But, getting back to Simmons and 1915: he had gathered a few friends to his new organization, but he waited until December to announce its formation in local papers. Specifically, he waited until “The Birth of a Nation” was scheduled to premiere in Atlanta theaters. According to several historians, the Klan consistently timed its recruitment drives to coincide with screenings of the movie. Nancy MacLean found that the KKK had a hard time getting up to speed in Athens, Georgia, until “a much-touted return engagement” of the movie in 1921. The Klan and its successor organizations continued using it as a recruiting device, right up to the video revolution of the 80s and 90s, according to Dick Lehr and Thomas Martinez. It may still be used, for all I know. Apart from that, Simmons adopted much of the imagery of the movie, without worrying over whether it was historically accurate. The original Klan had not used the burning cross as a symbol, that was an invention of Dixon in The Clansman, based on his idea of Scottish clans burning St. Andrews’ crosses. D.W. Griffith was the one who invented the symbol of a burning Latin cross, which remains a powerful symbol of hatred today.

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I’m sure this was an unintended consequence, so far as D.W. Griffith was concerned. So far as I know, neither he nor Thomas Dixon condoned the new Klan or its use of their art to foster hate. I’m not trying to present a simple argument of causality here, either: blaming D.W. Griffith for lynchings in the South in the 1920s is equivalent to blaming violent video games for school shootings, and I don’t mean to go that route. What I do think is that modern film fans, critics, and historians have to make an effort to get the easy stuff right. A movie that propagandizes for the KKK is not a “neutral” work of art that can be removed from its place in history. It was wildly popular for some of the same reasons that the Second Klan was popular. That isn’t pretty, but it is our past, and the more “important” we judge “The Birth of a Nation” to be in film history, the more we need to confront what that importance says about all the movies that followed it. Film historians and classic film fans often tend to romanticize their subject matter, but it’s bound up in all the same problems we see in society as a whole. That’s what looking at the past through the lens of its visual representation means to me.

I don’t usually give sources for my posts, but since this was one of the most heavily researched ones I’ve done, here are the references:

Greer, John Michael. Inside a Magical Lodge: Group Ritual in the Western Tradition. St Paul: Llewellyn, 1998.

Horowitz, David A, ed. Inside the Klavern: The Secret History of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. Carbondale, Il: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.

Kirschenbaum, Robert. “Klan and Commonwealth: The Ku Klux Klan in Kentucky, 1921-1928.” Master’s thesis, University of Kentucky, 2005.

Lay, Shawn. Hooded Knights on the Niagara: The Ku Klux Klan in Buffalo, New York. New York and London: NYU Press, 1995.

_____, ed. The Invisible Empire in the West: Toward a New Historical Appraisal of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Lehr, Dick. The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War. New York: Public Affairs, 2014.

MacLean, Nancy. Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Martinez, Thomas & John Gunther. Brotherhood of Murder. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Moore, Leonard. Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 1991.

Birth of a Nation (1915) Part III

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Before I get into the main part of my discussion for this post, I want to talk about a newer movie I watched recently, called “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorcese Through American Movies.” This was a documentary Scorcese produced with the British Film Institute in the late 1990s. He mostly focuses on the movies he grew up with, so the period of the 1940s ad 50s is strongly represented, but not that many Century Films show up. He does talk a bit about the early years of cinema, however, and he does something very interesting when he does. Like a lot of twentieth century film historians, he waxes poetic about the significance and importance of “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915, and he uses a number of clips from the movie to demonstrate its technical achievements. However, he says nothing about its controversial content. That’s fairly standard, but I had to watch the segment twice or three times to realize just how far he (or the BFI editor) had gone to “whitewash” the film. Not only are there no close-ups of Klansmen in sheets, nor do we see the lustful “Gus” chasing Mae Marsh off a cliff, but there are no images shown which give any insight into the racial content of the movie at all! No white men in blackface, no celebrations of harmonious slavery, nothing. We do get a glimpse of the Reconstruction-era Congress, with black men sitting at the Representatives desks, but it doesn’t hold long enough for us to see them drinking, taking off their shoes, eating fried chicken, etc. A person would come out of this documentary thinking that “The Birth of a Nation” was just another version of “Lincoln,” in that the longest sequence is the John Wilkes Booth assassination at the Ford theater. This is just one more example of how the racist nature of the movie is downplayed (or in this case suppressed) in order to play up the narrative of its originality and importance to film history, a narrative I find increasingly dubious, the more research I do.

 Birth of a Nation book

All that’s by way of a digression, what I really wanted to talk about this month is D.W. Griffith the man, who he was and how he came to make “The Birth of a Nation.” I recently read and reviewed the book The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War. I was a bit disappointed because it wasn’t really a work of film history, more of a dual biography and journalistic account of the clash between Griffith and Monroe Trotter, an African American journalist in Boston. But, in that sense, I learned a lot about Griffith, and that’s what I’d like to talk about here. D.W. Griffith was born in Kentucky, a slave state which never joined the Confederacy, whose citizens were divided among Pro-Union and Pro-Confederate sympathizers. His father was Jacob “roaring Jake” Griffith, a somewhat intemperate adventurer who volunteered for the South at a somewhat advanced age (he had been a forty-niner, searching for gold in the California Gold Rush). He became a colonel and was retired with honors. After the war, he was given to drinking late into the night and regaling listeners with tales of his exploits, liberally mixing fact with fiction. Apparently these drunken rants were basically the first “theater” his son experienced, and young David Wark Griffith drank it all in as a way of connecting with his otherwise distant father.

 Seal_of_Kentucky_(Confederate_shadow_government)

Let’s step back a bit more and talk about Kentucky. It was a strategically vital state in the war. Lincoln went so far as to say that if Kentucky was lost, the war would be also. But it was a state where slavery was a big part of the economy and way of life. Kentucky was formally neutral at the outbreak of the war, but eventually requested Union protection, after bloody battles and Confederate guerilla activities had begun to threaten stability. White pro-Union Kentuckians presumably hoped that their loyalty to the Union would mean that they would be permitted to retain their lifestyle, and they felt betrayed by the Emancipation Proclamation. As the military situation shifted toward Union supremacy, Kentucky sympathies shifted toward the Confederacy, but at that point Union troops controlled most of the state. The military commander ordered reprisals of four men shot for every Union soldier killed by guerilla action. Men like Jake Griffith came home defeated, more or less able to tell their neighbors, “I told you so” as the Reconstruction took place throughout the South. A branch of the KKK opened in Kentucky to join in solidarity with the movement against Reconstruction, even though Kentucky was never formally a Reconstruction state, never having been in the Confederacy. In fact, Kentuckians had it comparably good in this period, the military occupation was lifted and their congress was able to reinstate the citizenship of former Confederate soldiers. But, a sense of bitterness remained and grew.

Confederate_Reunion_Parade_Richmond

So far as I know, Jake Griffith never joined the original Klan, and David quite probably lived his whole life without meeting anyone who had been involved in it. He was born in 1875, one year after the disbandment of the movement, and the stories he heard about the Reconstruction period in Kentucky were distorted by his father’s emotions, sympathies, and propensity for exaggeration. The story of the “lost cause” spread among the old South and began to find acceptance in the North as well. The dominant myth that the nation came to use for reconciliation was that the Civil War had been a great tragedy for the whole nation, and what both North and South had in common was their white heritage, whether with or without slavery. The legacy of emancipation became less important than preserving white supremacy in the reunified nation.

Back to young D.W. Griffith. His father died while he was ten years old, making it impossible for the boyhood adulation to be checked by adolescent conflicts. After his death, the family entered a period of difficulty, and had to move from its rural homestead to the “big city” of Louisville, where Griffith stood out as a country bumpkin. He had all the usual problems adjusting to the pace of life there, but no doubt also associated it all with the multiculturalism and liberalism of modern society, as against the pastoral dream of his childhood. Meanwhile, he also discovered the theater, and finally knew what he wanted to do with his life. By his mid-teens, he started working in theaters, taking any job he could get, all the while trying to start a career either as a writer or an actor.

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He never found great success at either, although he made a living, sometimes precariously, working for touring shows as an extra or a stage hand, moving about the country freely and never settling for long in one place. He was over thirty when he finally signed to Biograph Studios as an actor, finally starting him on the path that would lead to his greatest successes. According to Billy Bitzer, his future cameraman, Griffith was a terrible actor, given to waving his arms around dramatically and hamming in every scene. Bitzer could not believe that such a performer had much potential as an director, but in fact Griffith had an excellent eye and ability to get what he wanted – so long as he didn’t have to do it himself. He picked talented actors and gave them the right amount of direction. He would leave the confident, experienced actors alone, giving them just simple directions as the camera rolled, while he would rehearse and give attention to those who needed the guidance.

 Billy_Bitzer_D_W_Griffith_1920

The story of Griffith’s film work has been told many times, and I don’t want to extend this post unnecessarily, but all the elements giving rise to “The Birth of a Nation” were in place before he even started. He believed in his father’s distorted Kentucky-centric view of the Civil War. He had been raised in a culture that celebrated white supremacy, and nothing in his adult experience had challenged this. He had an epic vision of recent history before his birth, and he honed the talents and skills to create a vision he could share with others of his time and place. He was a skillful showman, and had learned from his father how to hold an audience and how to exaggerate, something he did in nearly every interview and press release he ever gave. And Griffith was connected to the dominant cultural perceptions of his time – “The Birth of a Nation” was a powerful experience for so many because Griffith, and his white audiences, really did believe what he had to say about Reconstruction and the KKK.

For the earlier posts in this essay series, see links below:

In Part One, I discussed the racist content of “Birth of a Nation.”

In Part Two, I talked about its technical accomplishments.

Birth of a Nation (1915), Part II

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So, having completely bashed the picture for its racist content last time out, I’m stuck with a big question: If it’s so terrible, why is it so important? At the risk of creating an essay that’s guilty of the very problems I identified then, I need to talk about two things: technical advances and ballyhoo. To start with the first, let’s be clear: “The Birth of a Nation” was not, as has occasionally been claimed, the first feature film. It was not the first use of tracking shots, pans, or close ups. It was not the first film to edit within scenes or even the most advanced example of editing or lighting or any technique that had ever been used before. However, it was one of the first movies to combine all of this into an emotionally affecting narrative. For many viewers, it may have been their first experience seeing the above techniques used so well or so frequently.

And the second half of the equation partly explains this. D.W. Griffith had poured his life into making this movie (more about him as a person in future installments) had called in every favor he could and was in serious debt. He needed the movie to succeed, and he used every tactic of media exploitation he could to promote it. People heard about the movie long before they saw it. The stage was set for them, the thrills predicted. Moreover, they went in primed for a “new” experience. While “the movies” were seen in the United States (less so in Europe) as being “common” entertainment for poor people and immigrants, Griffith promoted his “photo-play” as an uplifting experience for the middle classes. Legitimate theaters (as opposed to nickelodeons) were rented for premieres in various cities, and ticket prices were as much as $2.00 (as opposed to five cents), making this an exclusive experience but also setting up an expectation that one was really going to “see something.” Orchestras were hired to play the original score. Ushers wore Civil War uniforms. People went wild, cheering and applauding. Of course, the minority of African Americans who saw the movie came away with a different feeling, but for the dominant white majority, this quickly became part of their personal narratives – one of the most exciting experiences of their lives, and an example of how motion pictures could be more than a minor diversion. The result is that more people, and certainly more influential people, saw the movie and were blown away by it.

Side note/tangent: I find that New York City’s Film Forum will be screening the movie tomorrow for its centenary. Wisely, they have invited an African American author to introduce it. I wonder whether it still may draw a few protestors.

Birth of a Nation (1915), Part I

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Up to now, my reviews have been quite short. This is not a mistake: I want to cover as many films of each year as I can, and I want to make my discussions accessible. I also see them as potential jumping-off points for more detailed discussions in the comments. For this year, however, I’m making an exception. The legacy of the movie “The Birth of a Nation,” by D.W. Griffith is too much to handle in a single post of a few hundred words, so I’m giving myself all year to unpack it. This represents its powerful impact on film history, but no less its controversial and problematic content.

Let’s start with that. This movie is a blatant glorification of the Ku Klux Klan of the Reconstruction Era South and a continuation of the “Lost Cause” narrative of the Civil War which furthered the cause of white supremacy by framing the South as the noble victim of Northern industrial and technological advancement. The movie was so powerful in delivering this message that it facilitated the rebirth of a new KKK in America, which became a powerful political force throughout the country by the early 1920s and was still active in fighting the Civil Rights movement a generation later. As late as 1988, former klansman Thomas Martinez claimed that KKK-inspired organizations would use the silent movie as a recruitment device, more than 60 years after the introduction of sound film. In short, the movie is racist, and at least part of its legacy is racism. That’s all pretty obvious, but it has been known to get lost in discussions about how important, groundbreaking, original, etc. the film was. Perhaps more importantly, many people at the time, including D.W. Griffith himself, actually didn’t believe that it espoused race hatred. In short, it makes the movie a case study in the ways that a society glosses its own prejudices, until enough things change to make it obvious. If some people in 1915 couldn’t see the racism in “The Birth of a Nation,” what are we missing in 2015?

See for yourself: here.