Birth of a Nation (1915) Part III
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”