In 1915, the film industry was still in its infancy. In February of that year, director D.W. Griffith released his film The Birth of a Nation and an entire industry was transformed. The three-hour epic film was revolutionary in its production, with groundbreaking camera work and narrative storytelling on film that no one had ever seen before.
But beyond it’s groundbreaking technical aspects, Griffith’s film left a disturbing legacy, as well. The Birth of a Nation remains highly controversial due to its depiction of black Southerners and Ku Klux Klan members.
The film tells the story of two families during the Civil War and the Reconstruction era afterwards. The racist depiction of black men in the film shocked many then, and is even more shocking now. They were shown as violent, aggressive brutes who were not only dangerous, but practically manic in their need to harm virginal white women. The Ku Klux Klan members, on the other hand, are seen as noble, heroic saviors intent on restoring law and order to an unruly post-Civil War South.
“The critics were raving. People were on their feet cheering at the climax of the film, when the Klan is seen as a healing force — restoring order to the chaos of the South during Reconstruction,” says Dick Lehr, who wrote The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War.
The film was a huge hit, even though it was protested at theaters by the NAACP. The civil rights group, founded in 1909, called the film “three miles of filth.” Riots broke out in Boston, Philadelphia, and other cities because of the film’s controversial depiction of black people.
Perhaps the most ringing endorsement for the film? President Woodrow Wilson made The Birth of a Nation the first film ever to be screened at the White House. His reaction? President Wilson said the film was like “history written in lightning.”
Race relations were at a tenuous point in 1915, and Wilson, a Southerner who lived through the Civil War, believed the post-Civil War years and Reconstruction had destroyed many of the institutions and legacies of the South. Wilson said, “In the villages the Negroes were the office holders, men who knew nothing of the uses of authority, except its insolences.” Wilson added that Reconstruction laws “put the white south under the heel of the black south” until “there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.”
One shocking scene in the film shows a white woman being chased by a violent black man (a white actor in blackface). The woman is chased to the edge of a cliff, and, instead of allowing the black man to have his way with her, jumps to her death. This pivotal scene in many ways sums up the entire theme of The Birth of a Nation: the pure whiteness of the South can never succumb to depraved outside forces – i.e., to black men who “don’t know their place.”
Certain white audiences delighted in the glorification of the “old South,” when everyone had a prescribed role and no one stepped out of line. The film was so popular that the KKK, which had nearly died out in the late 19th century, experienced a surge in membership after its release. The hate group even used The Birth of a Nation as a recruiting tool. William Joseph Simmons, the man who revived the Klan in 1915, said that the film was so popular he believed there might not have been a Klan revival if the film wasn’t released.
The Birth of a Nation remained the highest grossing film of all time for almost 25 years, until it was overtaken by Gone with the Wind. Now over 100 years removed from its release, The Birth of a Nation and its ramifications have been studied in depth by historians, its harmful themes and their impacts on American society pored over. While the film may have given birth to the modern film industry, it also bears significant responsibility for reviving racist attitudes and bringing them into mainstream American society after a dormant period.
Something that we are, unfortunately, all too familiar with today.
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