'The Birth of a Nation' at 100: "Important, Innovative and Despicable" (Guest Column)

Brandeis University film professor and historian Tom Doherty revisits the release — and assesses the damage — of D.W. Griffith's landmark film.
Courtesy of Photofest

The calendar delivers an invitation to pause and observe — not celebrate — the 100th anniversary of the most important, innovative and despicable film in American history.

On February 8, 1915, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of Nation (then under its original title, The Clansman) premiered at Clunes Auditorium in Los Angeles, with a full symphony orchestra playing live musical accompaniment. It soon became a nationwide sensation: a cinematic milestone that established the narrative feature film as the flagship product of Hollywood cinema. Its depiction of African-Americans also exposed — in the most visceral and vivid way — the raw symptoms of a peculiarly American pathology. For the last century, for better but mostly for worse, its impact has rippled through the currents of American culture.

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Based upon the incendiary novels of preacher-playwright-demagogue Thomas Dixon, Jr., the film merges the stories of two families, one Southern, one Northern. The Camerons of Piedmont, South Carolina, are Dixie aristocracy, led by a benevolent patriarch who presides over his devoted children and faithful slaves with kindly paternalism. Ben (Henry Walthall) is the stalwart scion, Flora (Mae Marsh) is the spunky “Little Sister” and two other boys are future cannon fodder. Less blessed, the Stonemans of Pennsylvania are ruled by a race traitor, the Hon. Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis), the radical Republican Speaker of the House (a thinly veiled stand in for a real-life Congressional architect of Reconstruction, Thaddeus Stevens). He is a moral weakling under the baleful influence of his mulatto mistress (Mary Alden, a white actress in blackface, like all the major black roles). Despite being born above the Mason-Dixon line, Stoneman‘s daughter Elsie (a radiant Lillian Gish, Griffith’s muse) is the very ideal of Southern womanhood: ethereal, sweet and pure.  

Alas, like the nation, the fraternal bond between the families is torn apart by the costliest of American blood feuds. On the battlefield, a Cameron and a Stoneham son die in each other’s arms, enemies no more. Serving as a Confederate officer, Ben — now nicknamed “the Little Colonel” — fights valiantly, but the noble cause is lost.  

With the Confederacy defeated and Lincoln assassinated, Stoneman and his mulatto henchman Silas Lynch (a towering George Seigman) determine to rip the soul out of the South by enforcing an equality between the races, something patently against the laws of God and Nature. Just look at the hapless free blacks, shuckin’ and jivin’, chugging whiskey and putting their bare feet up on the desks in the state legislature. Besides 40 acres and a mule, Lynch entices the simpleminded freemen with a more seductive campaign promise: "Equal Rights, Equal Politics, Equal Marriage.” Thus incited, "a renegade Negro" with unspeakable motives pursues Little Sister. She chooses “death before dishonor” and leaps off a cliff.  

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Heartbroken and enraged, the Little Colonel is inspired to don white robes when he remembers black folk are always spooked by white sheets. The creation of the Ku Klux Klan comes not a moment too soon: virtue is threatened on all sides, with Elsie in the clutches of the lustful Lynch and a cabin-full of decent men and women besieged on all sides by carpetbaggers and free blacks. As the villains advance ever more closely on the cabin, Griffith cross cuts to the gallant Klansmen galloping furiously to the rescue, accompanied by the sounds of a live orchestra playing Wagner’s "Ride of the Valkyries." The white women are rescued, the natural racial order of things is restored and a new nation is born — with rigid color lines.   

At over three hours in length, plus intermission, American moviegoers had never seen anything like it: spectacular battlefield panoramas, operatic melodrama, thrilling chase scenes — the full power of cinematic art pulling at their heartstrings and quickening their pulses. By all accounts, rapturous white audiences responded with tears, gasps, applause, hisses and raucous cheering. In 1976, cameraman Karl Brown, who served as an assistant to Griffith's ace cinematographer Billy Bitzer, recalled the passions stirred by those first screenings for the  documentary filmmakers Kevin Brownlow and David Gill: “It was like a call to arms — you just couldn’t let go,” he told them, his eyes still ablaze at the memory. “You weren’t watching people ride, you were riding with them ... riding on a stern determination of vengeance — vengeance for that beautiful sister that you learned to love so well.”

Getting a rollout befitting its ambitions, The Birth of a Nation was released on a "roadshow" basis, like a theatrical production, with all the ballyhoo of a circus coming into town. In city after city, the incandescent one-sheet (a hooded night rider, blazing cross in upraised arm, astride a rearing horse) papered storefronts and, on premiere day, Union and Confederate veterans in uniform paraded down Main Street. Usher girls in crinoline dresses escorted patrons into ornate venues. Tickets at New York’s Liberty Theater, where it played for 44 weeks, topped off at an unheard-of $2.20 ($51.50 in today’s dollars). Throughout the silent era, the film was never far from a marquee. “Still the daddy of ‘em all!” crowed Variety trumpeting a re-release in 1923. “No matter how often seen, there’s always that `kick’ or thrill involved that no other special feature or general release has held.” In 1930, a sound version with a synchronized musical track was released, preceded by a reverent interview with Griffith by actor Walter Huston. "It’s still considered to be the best picture that was ever made," Huston gushes. The egalitarian ethos wrought by World War II and the vanishing appeal of the silent screen put an end to its life as the theatrical attraction, but art houses and museums continued to revere Griffith’ opus. Occasionally, too, the film would appear under less educational auspices. In 1957, during the conflict over school integration in Little Rock, Ark., a local exhibitor booked The Birth of a Nation to fly his segregationist colors. 

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For Griffith, the hate-filled epic he affectionately referred to as "the Birth" was a labor of love.  The Kentucky-born son of Confederate parents, he grew up listening to his father rail against "the War of Northern Aggression" and his mother tell of staying up nights to sew uniforms for the KKK. By 1915, he had worked in the nascent motion picture industry for nearly a decade, producing hundreds of one- and two-reelers for Biograph Pictures, advancing his craft, perfecting the syntax of motion picture art. Griffith is often erroneously credited with inventing film techniques such as the close up, the dissolve and the flashback; it is more accurate to say he was the first American director to fluently integrate the language of cinema to create an entire "evening’s entertainment,” as he called it. "He was the teacher of us all," said Charles Chaplin.

In 1914, when Griffith was shooting The Birth of a Nation on the outskirts of rural Hollywood, there was still plenty of the original Civil War ordinance and veteran expertise around, plenty of old-timers who could remember the rituals of camp life and even (had there been sound) to shout the "Rebel Yell" screamed by Confederate troops to unnerve the Yankees. The soldiers’ stories and the homey details on screen — the parched corn, sweet potato coffee and “Southern ermine” (raw cotton used by woman to decorate their dresses) — give parts of the film an undeniable ethnographic verisimilitude, like a Matthew Brady photograph. Ironically, Griffith conceived the project as an anti-war statement, released to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, at the very moment Europe had plunged into even more horrific conflagration.  

Griffith’s artistry only makes his ideological purpose all the more insidious. Utterly faithful to the source material, it is a work of racist revisionism that rewrites the history of the Civil War and its Reconstruction aftermath. Every frame, every gentle vignette, every stirring chase, is conjured to uphold the ideology of white racism. The African Americans are portrayed as two kinds of animals: either docile, dumb and domesticated ("faithful souls") or sinister, rapacious and dangerous — dangerous especially to white women, whom they lust after. Griffith’s mission is to reunite North and South in a shared resistance to the real threats to the nation — the radical Republicans, bent on emasculating Southern manhood, and the free blacks, recklessly eyeballing the vessels of pure white Southern womanhood. "The former enemies of North and South are united again in common defense of their Aryan birthright," as an intertitle declares. So distant are today’s audiences from the racist conventions at the heart of the film that many of the pantomimed gestures and visual cures must be de-coded. During the famous ride to the rescue, the white men in the besieged cabin hold the butts of their rifles over the heads of the women — ready to bash their brains in rather than have their wives and daughters suffer "the fate worse than death" that was sexual violation by a black man. 

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The naked racism and delusional history did not go unchallenged. Galvanized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909, progressives both black and white picketed theater fronts, held rallies and marched in protest. "A new art was used, deliberately, to slander and vilify a race," fumed the scholar and black activist W.E.B. DuBois. In many localities, the film was cut, banned or limited to adult audiences — not so much to placate protesters but because city fathers feared white audiences, riled by the imagery, would resort to violence. Boston, cradle of the abolitionist movement, witnessed some of the fiercest anti-Birth agitation under the leadership of William Monroe Trotter, editor of the black newspaper, The Guardian, a story recently told in Dick Lehr’s The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War. In his 2007 book D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation: a History of 'the Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time', the British film historian Melvyn Stokes also chronicled reactions to a film that is always with us, still liable to generate a picket line, still a touchy title to show on university campuses in today’s hyper-sensitive environments.      

Appropriately, one of the most impassioned counter-attacks came on Griffith’s home turf, the motion picture screen. Appalled by Griffith’s hallucinations, the pioneering African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux rebuked The Birth of a Nation with Within Our Gates (1920), an interracial melodrama where it is white, not black, lust that assaults virtue. Little circulated, long lost and only rediscovered in the 1970s, Micheaux’s j’accuse is a fascinating antidote to Griffith’s toxic vision — but by comparison a blip on film history.

If the impact of The Birth of a Nation on the racial id of millions of American moviegoers is impossible to calculate, its most direct consequence is easier to gauge: the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Defunct since the Reconstruction era (its job, after all, was done), the KKK saddled up for a long second life in the wake of Birth. The immediate spark came in 1913 in Atlanta when a Northern, Jewish factory manager named Leo Frank was convicted of murdering a 13-year-old girl white girl named Mary Phagan. When Georgia governor John M. Slaton commuted Frank’s death sentence to life imprisonment, a vigilante band dubbing themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan kidnapped Frank from the state prison and lynched him on August 17, 1915. That November, the lynch party congregated on Stone Mountain, Georgia, and re-branded themselves as a reborn Ku Klux Klan, imitating the ritual — soaking a flag in symbolic blood — learned from Griffith’s film. The white citizens of Georgia surely didn’t need a motion picture to incite them to lynch Leo Frank, but the film provided a validation and a model to be imitated. By 1924, the KKK had nearly 5 million members and for decades afterwards remained a social club in the South as popular and respectable as the Kiwanis.

These days, repertory houses, university film programs and museums tread carefully when projecting a print of The Birth of a Nation, usually scheduling a cautionary introduction or post-screening panel discussion to provide context, as if some kind of moral protective gear must be put on before exposure to its poisoned atmosphere. Even so, the power of Griffith’s art can still transport viewers to places they do not want to be. An African American colleague who regularly teaches the film told me about a black student who came up to him after a screening to marvel: “Wow, that film really works. At the end, I was rooting for the Klan.”

Thomas P. Doherty is a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University and the author of numerous books on American film and culture, most recently Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, published in 2013 by Columbia University Press.

Twitter: @TomDohertyFilm

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

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