90 years later, a reexamination of the film ‘Birth of a Nation’

March 2005 marked the 90th anniversary of the release of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a film that remains one of the most groundbreaking and controversial in movie history.

The Birth of a Nation set the foundation for the long history of racially bigoted filmmaking in America.

Some critics showered the movie with praise and credited Griffith with forever changing the face of filmmaking. He was the first to use panning cameras, parallel action and highly edited sequences using cross-cuts, close-ups, natural landscapes, along with intricate character and story development. Every epic battle film from Braveheart to The Lord of the Rings has dipped into the toolbox of technique and cinematic language created by Griffith’s Civil War battle scenes. Almost a century after they were created, those scenes and sequences – like the detailed re-creation of the Lincoln assassination – are still visually and emotionally gripping.

For every brilliant Griffith innovation seen in the first half of The Birth of a Nation, however, there is an equally horrific and painful mischaracterization of blacks and the Reconstruction era in the last half of the film.

Griffith, the son of a Confederate Army colonel, wanted to make a film that honored the Civil War tales he had heard from his father while growing up in rural Kentucky. He pointedly chose to base the film on the play The Clansmen, written by white supremacist the Rev. Thomas A. Dixon.

In Griffith’s mind, and in The Birth of a Nation, the Ku Klux Klan is viewed as a crusading group of patriots who saved the South from the tyranny of black rule. In a variety of scenes, blacks (played primarily by whites in blackface) are depicted as wild sexual predators lusting after virginal white women, or political buffoons who deny whites the right to vote while allowing other blacks to participate in voter fraud.

In a particularly sickening sequence, newly elected black officials put their bare feet up on desks, casually munch on fried chicken and drink alcohol on the job while supposedly passing legislation that allows interracial marriage. Later, the KKK, costumed to look like crusading Knights of the Round Table, ride in to save whites from the clutches of various evil Negroes.

For years, many film lovers and critics downplayed the movie’s racist content. I can recall watching excerpts of the Civil War battle scenes in my introductory film class in college and only hearing a discussion of minor concerns about the actors in blackface. It wasn’t until years later that I realized the film was a glorification of the KKK, and it was so effective in boosting the group’s enrollment that it used it as a recruiting device.

The real heroes of the story are blacks of the early 20th century who were tireless in their efforts to raise consciousness about the film’s racist message.

At the time of its release, the newly formed NAACP, along with other groups, fought against the film’s distribution. In a 47-page pamphlet titled Fighting a Vicious Film: Protest Against The Birth of a Nation, the NAACP described the movie as “three miles of filth.”

Violent demonstrations took place in cities like Philadelphia and Boston where the film was playing, while other organized efforts led to officials in some cities — including Chicago, Pittsburgh, Denver, St. Louis and Minneapolis – refusing to show the film. Consciousness-raising efforts continue to this day with young artists like Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky) presenting conceptual art works like his Rebirth of a Nation, which remixes and reconsiders the messages of the original film.

According to various reports, Griffith was surprised and saddened by the charges of racism against his film. Many cite his 1916 sequel, Intolerance, as a testament to his remorse about reaction to The Birth of a Nation.

But later in 1930, Griffith was still talking about how much the “Klan was needed” at the time of Reconstruction.

He also said, “Movies are written in sand: Applauded today, forgotten tomorrow.” In the case of The Birth of a Nation, he couldn’t have been more wrong.

Andrea  Lewis  is  a  San  Francicso-based  journalist  and  co-host  of  The  Morning  Show  on  KPFA  Radio  in  Berkeley,  Calif.   She  can  be  reached  at  pmproj@progressive.org.