Hollywood Flashback: A Century Before Sundance, 'Birth of a Nation' Was a Racist Hit

Actors, some in blackface, played Civil War soldiers in 1915's 'The Birth of a Nation.' It was banned in Atlanta in 1959.
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D.W. Griffith's 1915 silent film, featuring actors in blackface portraying watermelon-eating caricatures intent on raping white women while the Ku Klux Klan is seen riding to the rescue, sparked riots and was denied release in eight northern states: "It established the paradigm in American films where persons of color were the villains, while the true oppressors were the iconic heroes," says John Singleton.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Nate Parker's drama The Birth of a Nation, which sold at Sundance on Jan. 26 for a record $17.5 million, shares its title with D.W. Griffith's 1915 silent film, but that's about all the two have in common. Parker's movie centers on Nat Turner's 1831 slave rebellion; Griffith's focuses on two white families during the Civil War and the Ku Klux Klan's rise during Reconstruction. Much of what was portrayed in the first feature-length U.S. movie is repugnantly racist, but it changed the film business forever.

The two-hour-plus, $110,000 ($2.6 million today) epic was the first movie to screen at a legitimate theater in New York. Tickets were $2 for the best seats ($47 today), and a 40-piece orchestra accompanied twice-daily screenings. To say Nation — hyped as having employed 18,000 people and 3,000 horses — thrilled audiences would be an understatement: Within five years of its debut, 50 million people, or 1 in 2 Americans, had seen the film. When President Woodrow Wilson hosted a private White House screening March 21, 1915, he said Nation was "like writing history with lightning." But he added, "My only regret is that it is all so terribly true," which stoked controversy.

Black men in the film were watermelon-eating caricatures intent on raping white women and barefoot, whiskey-guzzling Reconstruction-era legislators, while the gallant Klan is seen riding to the rescue. The NAACP denounced the movie as "a glorification of the Ku Klux Klan." Riots broke out in Boston and Philadelphia, and it was denied release in eight northern states.

"It's almost like a sci-fi film in the way it speaks to people's fears," says director John Singleton. "It established the paradigm in American films where persons of color were the villains, while the true oppressors were the iconic heroes." Griffith, who in 1921 released a re-edited version without KKK references, got rich off Nation. He wasn't the only one: In 1988, The Hollywood Reporter said he had given the Rev. Thomas Dixon Jr., whose book The Clansman formed the plot's basis, 25 percent of profits. The Baptist minister earned $1.4 million (nearly $33 million today) — more than Griffith received for producing, directing, co-writing, co-editing and co-scoring the film.

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