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Summary Article: Birth of a Nation, The from Race and Racism in the United States: An Encyclopedia of the American Mosaic

The Birth of a Nation, a film by director D. W. [David Wark] Griffith, represented a watershed for both the entertainment industry and race relations in the United States. It debuted in 1915 and is recognized as one of the most important films in American history. The movie displayed unprecedented artistic mastery and pioneered such techniques as the close-up, long shot, chase scene, and climactic triumph of the hero. Yet, it also depicted Reconstruction as a lawless period because it politically empowered blacks, who were intellectually incapable of self-rule and consumed by their lust of white women. The Birth of a Nation, therefore, continued the dehumanization of African Americans that characterized national culture in the early 20th century and fueled the rise of organized terror against blacks, particularly in Southern states.

D. W. Griffith, a Southerner whose father served as a colonel in the Confederate Army, based The Birth of a Nation on two novels that North Carolina minister Thomas Dixon authored. Those works, The Clansman and The Leopard's Spots, portrayed the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) as a heroic organization that saved white Southerners from the clutches of sex-starved black rapists and the North's Republican rule. Griffith used the books as inspiration for his epic drama in part because the nation prepared to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil War's end.

When filming completed, Griffith had produced the longest and most expensive movie ever made. It featured large outdoor battle scenes, nighttime fighting, and a celebrated 20-minute ride by hooded Klansmen. The spectacle recreated cotton fields and an exact replica of Ford's Theater, employed thousands of extras with hundreds of horses, and used over 23,000 square yards of white sheeting. Yet, it also conveyed the clear message that blacks could not be trusted with basic freedoms. The Birth of a Nation championed Klansmen as the heroes of Reconstruction who returned order and stability to a region ravaged by the Republican Party in the war's aftermath. The film also demonized blacks as the reason national reunion in the post–Civil War era took as long as it did, and provided justifications for the atrocities whites committed against blacks during the period. In various scenes, freed slaves assaulted whites on the streets, attempted to rape white women, prevented whites from voting, and used their political power to pass laws that legalized interracial marriage. The film's final version ran for 90 minutes and used 12 reels at a time when most movies were no longer than five reels. It cost over $110,000 to complete, but Griffith had his masterpiece.

The movie debuted on February 8, 1915, at Clune's Auditorium in Los Angeles under the title The Clansman. The local NAACP protested the picture because of its inflammatory and racist content and obtained a court order that delayed the initial screening. Several blacks boycotted the premier of The Clansman, but over 100 police officers stationed at the theater prevented violence. The presence of actors dressed as Klansmen who rode horses outside of the theater undoubtedly infuriated the demonstrators. Yet, audiences and critics responded with such enthusiasm to Griffith's project that he changed its name to fit its grandiose vision before the film premiered in New York City. He now called his work The Birth of a Nation.

In the days before its New York premier, an enormous billboard that portrayed a hooded Klansman overlooked Times Square and deemed the film “a red-blooded tale of true American spirit.” But the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) tried desperately to have the film banned in their city before it arrived and produced numerous pamphlets that attacked the movie as racist propaganda. One such piece was titled “Fighting a Vicious Film: Protest Against The Birth of a Nation” and called the film “three miles of filth” (Lavender, 2001). New York Mayor John Mitchell, however, ignored the protests. As black denouncements of the film mounted, Thomas Dixon planned to undermine his critics. He asked President Woodrow Wilson, a former classmate at Johns Hopkins, fellow Southerner, and published historian, to view the film. On February 18, Wilson hosted the first private screening of a movie at the White House.

He concluded that The Birth of a Nation “is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true” (Chadwick, 2001: 122). The film opened on March 3 in New York City to organized protests, but became the city's most financially successful film during the era of silent movies.

In some areas, black protests proved more successful than they did in New York. In Chicago, for instance, the mayor refused to give the film a viewing permit. Cities such as Denver, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Philadelphia followed suit, if only for a temporary period. Yet, it was during the Boston screening where opposition to The Birth of a Nation sparked a violent confrontation between blacks, whites, and local police. The Boston NAACP, in imitation of branches throughout the United States, tried but failed to obtain an injunction against any presentation of the film in the city. When the film premiered at the Boston Tremont Theater on April 17, approximately 500 blacks protested its arrival. Some blacks bought tickets to the show and pelted the screen with eggs when Klansmen appeared. Others ignited stink bombs near the movie's finale. When blacks refused to leave the lobby of the Tremont after the film concluded, police moved among the crowd swinging their nightsticks. The interracial brawl rapidly spun out of control as other blacks and whites quickly joined the fray. Mayor James M. Curley deployed 260 officers to stop the riot. The following day, Curley held a public hearing to discuss the film's future, which D. W. Griffith and approximately 25,000 blacks attended.

Curley decided to ban the movie for one day, but NAACP leaders wanted it banished permanently. When the meeting concluded, the unsatisfied blacks moved to the Massachusetts State House and demanded that Gov. David Walsh make The Birth of a Nation illegal throughout the state. Walsh initiated a bill to ban the film and all racially provocative films, but the bill did not pass a legislative vote. The Boston NAACP organized no other protests of the feature.

The Birth of a Nation had its most immediate impact on American race relations when it opened in Atlanta, Georgia. On November 24, 1915, a week before the film premiered in the Peach City, William J. Simmons revived the Ku Klux Klan by burning a 15-foot cross on nearby Stone Mountain. The group had virtually ceased operations when Reconstruction ended in 1877. On the morning the film opened in Atlanta, Simmons placed an advertisement soliciting members for his new organization in the Atlanta Constitution next to information concerning Birth of a Nation's premiere. Simmons and fellow Klan members paraded in front of the theater where the movie opened and gave a 21-gun salute before the viewing began. Trains even brought rural residents to the city en masse to the event. Inside of the theater, vendors sold Klan hats and other related souvenirs. The movie inspired newly formed Klan chapters to redesign their costumes and adopt the practice of cross burning in imitation of the heroes of The Birth of a Nation. In 1920, the Ku Klux Klan claimed 4.5 million members.

The Birth of a Nation became the highest grossing silent film in cinema history, earning more than $10 million at the box office in 1915. By 1949, it had earned $50 million (Chadwick, 2001: 132). Yet it continued to attract protests in many cities after its original run ended. In 1938, a manager of an East Orange, New Jersey, theater planned to show the movie for a week at his facility. He stopped playing the film four days early because two prominent black physicians gathered a petition signed by 609 residents that demanded he cease. The petition claimed that interracial fighting erupted in local schools each day that The Birth of a Nation was shown. During the 1940s, the national NAACP continued to boycott any theater that screened the picture. Even its presence at film festivals and historical presentations sparked controversy. In 1978, a museum in Riverside, California, scheduled a viewing of the film, but local blacks pressured city leaders to cancel it. An area Klan chapter decided to show the film in a nearby park as part of a recruitment drive, but over 200 citizens disrupted the viewing and attacked Klansmen with baseball bats and tire irons. The melee lasted over five hours and resulted in the hospitalization of five policemen. Two years later, 12 protestors stormed a San Francisco theater where The Birth of a Nation played, chased over 100 audience members out of the auditorium, and destroyed the film. In 1995, Turner Classic Movies canceled their broadcast of a restored version of the film because of the racial tensions that engulfed the nation in the wake of the O. J. Simpson murder verdict.

The Birth of a Nation has been selected for preservation in the United States Film Registry, but its importance far exceeds its artistic innovation. The movie seemingly justified white racism, perpetuated an atmosphere of racial hatred that lasted for decades, and inspired the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. Few elements of popular culture have had the effect, positively or negatively, that The Birth of a Nation continues to have on American race relations.

See also

Films and Racial Stereotypes; Griffith, D. W.; Ku Klux Klan (KKK)

Further Reading:
  • Chadwick, Bruce. The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film. Alfred A. Knopf New York, 2001.
  • Dray, Phillip. At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America. Modern Library New York, 2003.
  • Lang, Robert ed. The Birth of a Nation. Rutgers University Press New Brunswick NJ, 1994.
  • Lavender, Catherine.D.W. Griffith, The Birth of a Nation (1915).” College of Staten Island of the City University of New York, 2001. http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/birth.html.
  • Williamson, Joel. The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation. Oxford University Press New York, 1984.
  • J. Michael Butler
    Copyright 2014 by Charles A. Gallagher and Cameron D. Lippard

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