The History of 'The Birth of a Nation'

At the start of the infamous 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation, white words on a black screen declare: “A PLEA FOR THE MOTION PICTURE…. We do demand, as a right, the liberty to show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue—the same liberty that is conceded to the art of the written word—that art to which we owe the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.”

Today, such an apologetic defense of First Amendment rights would likely be taken as irony or outright sarcasm. But in 1915, when director D.W. Griffith took on a social, moral, and artistic crusade of propagandistic historical revisionism through film it was taken very, very seriously. So much so that the film grossed $18 million, an extraordinary sum for its time, setting a box office record that remained uncontested until 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Alternately celebrated as a filmic masterpiece and reviled as racist propaganda, The Birth of a Nation has forged its place in America’s cinematic, social, and political history. Originally titled The Clansman, after Reverend Thomas Dixon Jr.’s 1905 play on which the film is based, the film’s adopted title does little to hide its true subject, a three-hour epic of the Civil War, post-war Southern Reconstruction, and development of the Ku Klux Klan.

The film features two families: the Stonemans of Pennsylvania are politically powerful abolitionists, but still retain their friendship with the Camerons of South Carolina. When war erupts, the boys of both families fight on opposing sides, interrupting two budding inter-familial love affairs.

Rather than healing old wounds, Northern-dictated efforts at Reconstruction humiliate and defraud the Camerons further and incite Ben Cameron to create the Ku Klux Klan in order to avenge his homeland’s lost honor.

The controversial climactic scene of the film cross-cuts Klansmen riding to the rescue of a virtuous white women being menaced by her crafty, sexualized biracial servant and another white family being threatened by their slaves. The audience is induced to conclude that the Klan is a force for good, contrary to oppressive Northern Reconstruction and its unfair distribution of powers to blacks.

Appealing to nostalgia for the days of the Old South, The Birth of a Nation was, and still is, used as KKK propaganda to recruit new members. The emotions evoked were so strong that Klan membership peaked in the ten years following the film’s cinematic release.

Unsurprisingly, African-American rights activists decried the film’s historical fallacy. In 1915, the NAACP issued a pamphlet calling the film “three miles of filth.” Riots erupted in Boston and Philadelphia and the film was prevented from being shown in eight states. Subsequent re-releases have been accompanied by lawsuits and protests; and in 1998, a large outcry erupted when The Birth of a Nation was named #44 in the American Film Institute’s list of the Top 100 American Films.

Particularly interesting are the varied opinions of eminent scholars and leaders of the time. Former University President Charles E. Eliot, Class of 1853, protested The Birth of a Nation and headed the NAACP’s campaign to remove the most offensive scenes from the film; conversely, President Woodrow Wilson’s reaction was much more drastic. After a private screening at the White House, he said, “It’s like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all terribly true.”

Though Griffith insisted that his was “not a racist film,” objectors have pointed to his upbringing in rural Kentucky as the son of a Confederate veteran as indication of a questionable agenda.

Regardless of the storyline or Griffith’s personal history, The Birth of a Nation would likely still find a place in film history for its numerous technical innovations in cinematography. These included the development of the iris shot, in which the camera focuses on a particular visual detail of a shot and blacks out the surrounding scenery, and the development of coloring frames to highlight a scene’s mood.

For better or for worse, few would argue The Birth of a Nation’s extraordinary power to move, impress, and enrage its viewers. Its technical virtuosity and sweeping scope, along with its controversial, at times patently untrue historical message makes The Birth of a Nation perennially relevant in debates over artistic freedom, aesthetic judgment, and historical responsibility.

—Kristina M. Moore