‘The Birth of a Nation’ is a racist film. There are no two ways about it. From its depiction of black people as violent fools many of which played by white actors in despicable displays of blackface to its glorification of both the Confederacy, the KKK, and slavery, going so far as to call the latter ‘a quaintly way that is to be no more’ – perhaps the largest understatement of the horrors of slavery ever put to film – as well as its saintly portrayal of the KKK directly causing a revival of the group. It is difficult, then, to understand why this film is remembered at all as it is clearly a bigoted work the attitudes of which have no place in society. However, at the time of its release in 1915 it was completely revolutionary, so much so that its director D.W. Griffith has been lauded as the “Teacher of us all” by Charlie Chaplin, and many other directors such as Cecil B. DeMille and Serge Eisenstein have directly cited him as a major influence on their work. It is therefore a very difficult task to examine Griffith’s contrasting legacy between the founder of modern cinema and an ardent racist.
The contemporary reaction to the film was about as mixed as Griffith’s influence was. There is no doubt that the film did exceptionally at the box office, however the reports of its success vary wildly, from $15 million to $50 million, although this second figure was later revised to 5 million. Nevertheless, the film was a hit, likely due to its marketing as a high-class event meaning tickets sold at high prices, approximately $56 per person in the modern day. It was also the first film ever to be screened in the White House and was immensely popular with President Woodrow Wilson, himself an open supporter of segregation. In fact, Woodrow Wilson is even quoted in one of the intertitles as stating ‘at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country’.
Despite its widespread success, it would be a mistake to assume that everyone in 1915 supported the inflammatory messages of the film. In fact it faced much criticism, especially from the NAACP which protested numerous screenings of the film, as well as provoking more widespread calls for censorship of the film however since film boards across the USA were comprised almost entirely of white people, it was almost impossible to get the film banned. Other groups also rallied against the film, with Rabbi Stephen Samuel Wise telling the press that the film was ‘an indescribable foul and loathsome libel on a race of human beings’.
Nine months after the film was released, a new group gathered to burn crosses at Stone Mountain in Atlanta, Georgia. Until this moment, the Ku Klux Klan had been dead since 1872, however it was directly due to the influence of this film that the domestic terrorist hate group was revived. From watching the film, it is clear how somebody harbouring racist views in 1915 could easily be influenced by Griffith’s words and visuals to take up arms against the black and immigrant population of the USA, as Griffith does everything he can to demonise black people in his film while glorifying the KKK as the saviours of the South. By far the most dramatic shots of the films, the innovative tracking shots that follow the Klansmen from in front of them as they gallop “valiantly” into the town as well as the numerous evocative close-ups are used to emphasise the perceived gallantry of the Klan, painting them as dramatic heroes akin to the knights of old. What Griffith would like for you to think of as the “happy ending” of the film is a depiction of armed KKK members intimidating the black population of the town away from exercising their right to vote.
The imagery of the new Klan, founded by salesman and travelling preacher Joseph Simmons, was directly based off of that seen in the film. In fact, the original iteration of the group did not wear the infamous white robes or burn crosses; these elements were only adopted after the widespread success of the film. The group managed to attract widespread support from both the lower and middle classes of America due to its hard-line advocacy for white supremacist and anti-immigration policies, as well as arguing for stronger law enforcement and traditional “family values”.
By 1925 the Klan had reached around 4 million members and managed to garner political support in many southern states, with the governments of Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Texas employing officials that were members of the Klan . By the mid-1920s the Klan had gained enough power that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans could denounce it for fear of their own political careers. This is perfectly demonstrated by the case of Thomas Hardwick, who managed to win the Governorship of Georgia by praising the Klan, but after he fell out of favour with them was easily defeated by Clifford Walker who had close ties to the Klan himself and was a blatant supporter of them, even speaking before one of their national conventions.
Despite not being quite as violent as the original KKK, this new Klan still committed depraved acts of violence, such as kidnapping Alex Johnson in 1921, a black man in Dallas accused of sleeping with a white woman, branding him with the letters KKK and giving him a savage beating. The district attorney and police force did not prosecute the group for this, stating that they believed the man deserved what the KKK did to him. This lax response emboldened them, and the Dallas branch of the Klan went on to whip another 68 people in 1922 alone, often inviting reporters to the scene to publicise their acts of senseless violence.
Considering its negative impact on thousands of people, why is this film remembered as one of the greatest and most significant works of cinema ever made? Griffith is often mistaken as having invented techniques such as the dramatic close-up, the tracking shot, fade-ins and fade-outs and other editing used to evoke emotion as it was Griffith that refined these techniques and used them effectively to elicit the desired response from the audience, such as the use of the tracking shot in the Klan’s gallop into the town to present them as heroic and gallant, or the crosscutting between the attempt of the mixed-race Governor Silas Lynch to force a woman to marry him (which of course Griffith uses to further his racist presentation of black people), and the siege of the hut in which the Camerons, the Klan-founding protagonists of the film, are being attacked by Lynch’s militia. The cutting between the two creates a strong sense of urgency and drama at the climax of the film and engenders tension as to whether the Klansmen will arrive to “save” them in time, an effect that was unique to this film.
Griffith did, however, actually innovate multiple techniques which we take completely for granted today. One of which is the first ever use of colour for dramatic effect, tinting the entire frame one colour. Despite its rather primitive quality, the use of the red filter in scenes of extreme violence is uniquely haunting, while the warm yellow tones are redolent of a forgotten age of prosperity, and therefore are very effective in presenting a favourable image of the pre-war South. Additionally, Griffith pioneered the use of a plot that builds to a dramatic climax in a motion picture, something that is a given in almost every film of today. From a purely aesthetic sense, the film is incredibly engaging for a three hour long silent film. ‘The Birth of a Nation’ defined the tools of visual storytelling and the art of cinematography. In this way, then, Griffith is indeed the “Shakespeare of the screen” that he has been hailed as.
How should ‘The Birth of a Nation’ be remembered? As a seminal work of film that is to be celebrated for its innovation and its highly flawed message excused as a product of its time (as has been done by multiple apologist critics), or as a bigoted work of no academic value in the modern day? My answer is neither. We ought to study the film for how it has influenced the landscape of cinema with its artistic innovations, while recognising its horrifically bigoted themes and its highly problematic depiction of black people and the KKK. If anything, the film is an example of how a strong piece of art can have a significant impact upon the world, for good or ill.
- Kevin Thomas, Restored ‘Intolerance’ Launches Festival of Preservation, The LA Times, July 6 1990
- Show Business: Record Wind, Time Magazine, Feb 19 1940
- Richard Schickel, D.W. Griffith: An American Life, Apr 1984
- Daniel Bernardi, The Birth of a Nation: Integrating Race into the Narrator System, 2013
- Timeline of the NAACP, https://web.archive.org/web/20091119213141/http://www.naacp.org/about/history/timeline/
- John Hope Franklin, Birth of a Nation: Propaganda as History, The Massachusetts Review, 1979
- Stinton Liles, Southern Hollows, http://www.southernhollows.com/episodes/birthofanation, Jan 2018
- Kenneth T. Jackson, The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915-1930, Oxford University Press, 1967
- Ku Klux Klan, Southern Poverty Law Centre, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/ku-klux-klan
- Shawn Lay, Ku Klux Klan in the Twentieth Century, New Georgia Encyclopaedia, July 2005
- Christopher Allen Huff, Clifford Walker (1877-1954), New Georgia Encyclopaedia, July 2006
- Rachel Stone, When the KKK paraded in Oak Cliff, Oak Cliff Advocate, Feb 2017
- Michael W. Schuyler, Ku Klux Klan, Encyclopaedia of the Great Plains