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D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation 100 Years Later: Still Great, Still Shameful

9 minute read

At earlier screenings in Los Angeles it was called The Clansman, after the Thomas Dixon Jr. novel and play on which it was based. But David Wark Griffith must have realized that his film deserved a grander title. For its New York premiere on March 3, 1915, exactly a hundred years ago, he renamed it The Birth of a Nation.

Released on the 50th anniversary of the last full month of the Civil War, Griffith’s monument became a groundbreaking popular, technical and critical success. Produced for $100,000 and charging a top price of $2 (when tickets to most movies cost a dime), Birth was the seminal blockbuster of the silent-film period and the most widely seen of all motion pictures until it was eclipsed by another Civil War epic, Gone With the Wind, in 1939. Griffith’s film is estimated to have earned $18 million in its first few years — the astounding equivalent of $1.8 billion today. In current dollars, only Avatar and Titanic have earned more worldwide.

In its bold editing and composition of shots, in its contrast of intimate scenes with spectacular battles and a final thrilling chase, The Birth of a Nation was the culmination of six years of pioneering artistry by Griffith, the would-be novelist who at first thought he was slumming when he began working in the movies in 1908 but who established in the hundreds of one- and two-reelers he directed a cinematic textbook, a fully formed visual language, for the generations that followed. More than anyone else — more than all others combined — he invented the film art. He brought it to fruition in The Birth of a Nation, an enormous risk that he embarked on without a real script and using just one camera manned by his invaluable cinematographer, G.W. “Billy” Bitzer.

On Griffith’s death in 1948, TIME critic James Agee synopsized the achievement of the man who made movies move:

Before he walked on the set, motion pictures had been, in actuality, static. At a respectful distance, the camera snapped a series of whole scenes, clustered in the groupings of the stage play. Griffith broke up the pose. He rammed his camera into the middle of the action. He took closeups, crosscuts, angle shots and dissolves. His camera was alive, picking off shots; then he built the shots into sequences, the sequences into tense, swift narrative. For the first time the movies had a man who realized that, while a theater audience listened, a movie audience watched. “Above all … I am trying to make you see,” Griffith said.

(Read TIME’s Aug. 1948 remembrance of D.W. Griffith, here in the archives: Last Dissolve)

In The Birth of a Nation, Griffith made audiences see the Civil War through his eyes — the eyes of the son of a colonel in the Army of the Confederacy. The potent drama of the movie’s subject and method stirred President Woodrow Wilson to say, “It is like writing history with lightning; my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

Or truly terrible. The most ambitious and powerful film of its time was also the most controversial, indeed notorious. The rhetorical fire it kindled makes recent arguments over the validity of such Oscar-nominated films as Selma and American Sniper seem like the most decorous debates in the Red Hat Society — for The Birth of a Nation not only was about the country’s history, it changed it, unarguably for the worse.

Like many popular films of the next 40 years, Birth took the side of the South in its depiction of the Civil War. It saw the antebellum South as a paradise of Anglo gentility and the Reconstruction Era as the crushing of that dream. At heart a Romeo and Juliet story extended to gargantuan proportions, the movie focuses on two families, the Northern Stonemans and the Southern Camerons, whose eldest sons fall in love with girls from the other family. Though the Civil War places the young men on opposing sides, they retain respect for their old friends — Ben Stoneman (Henry B. Walthall) stops mid-battle to comfort a wounded Cameron — and love for their ladies.

So far, so predictable. The Birth of a Nation occupies a view of the South not far from Scarlett O’Hara’s in Gone With the Wind, and modern audiences have to wrestle with that beloved movie’s romanticizing of racism. But Griffith’s film went further, lower. Taking its cue from Dixon, whom film historian Russell Merritt aptly describes as a “professional Southerner and white supremacist,” Birth revels in the coarsest racial imagery: of crude Negroes (most of them played by white actors in blackface) who act like savages both in the Reconstruction Senate, as they deprive the white gentry of their rights, and in their sexual brutality toward Southern white women.

It is romantic chivalry, Griffith insists, that led to Southerners’ retaliations against Negroes. A rapacious black man stalks a young white woman until, to protect her virginity, she leaps off a cliff to her death. To avenge such indignities and defend the honor of white womanhood, Ben Stoneman and his noble fellows give birth to the Ku Klux Klan (who, in the film’s climax, gallop to the rescue to the music of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”). That racist realm, not the restored United States, is the true Nation of the film’s title: the land of lynchings, voter suppression and second-class citizenship for Southern blacks.

The seductive artistry of Griffith’s masterwork made his virulent, derisive depiction of blacks all the more toxic — one could say epidemic. This was not simply a racist film; it was one whose brilliant storytelling technique lent plausibility and poignancy to the notion of blacks as stupid, venal and brutal. Viewers could believe that what they saw was true historically and emotionally. Birth not only taught moviegoers how to react to film narrative but what to think about blacks and, in the climactic ride of hooded horsemen to avenge their honor, what to do to them. The movie provoked protests and riots in Northern cities with large black minorities. And by stirring bitter memories in the white South, it helped revive the dormant Ku Klux Klan, which for the next few decades went on a righteous spree of killing black men.

In a 1930 conversation with actor Walter Huston (then starring in Griffith’s first talking picture, Abraham Lincoln) for the re-release of The Birth of a Nation, the director argued that the Ku Klux Klan, riding like the cavalry to the rescue of the South from rapacious Negroes, “at that time was needed to serve the purpose.”

However myopic that sounds today, Griffith wasn’t alone in his sentiments. He had Huston read a passage by Woodrow Wilson, positing that the purpose of Reconstruction was “to put the white South under the heel of the black South,” under black officeholders “who knew none of the uses of authority except its insolences … The white men were roused by an instinct of mere self-preservation, until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South to protect the Southern country.” Bilge, all of it, and sadder still that it comes from a Southerner who was a noted historian and the head of Princeton University before becoming President. But it shows that a racist view of American history was near the norm in “civilized” society a hundred years ago, and for decades thereafter.

Yet The Birth of a Nation is nearly as antiwar as it is antiblack. The Civil War scenes, which consume only 30 minutes of the extravaganza, emphasize not the national glory but the human cost of combat. “On the battlefield,” announces one of the film’s intertitles, “War claims its bitter, useless sacrifice.” For all the spectacular panoramas of the battle footage, its explosions and ragged processions of soldiers, the most impressive and startling moments are the more intimate views of the battle’s end. “War’s peace,” reads another intertitle, and we are shown a tableau of a half-dozen dead soldiers, as if taking a restorative rest after their fatal labor. These images have the impact of defiant art: Goya’s Disasters of War or Picasso’s Guernica. Griffith may have been a racist politically, but his refusal to find uplift in the South’s war against the Union — and, implicitly, in any war at all — reveals him as a cinematic humanist.

Stung by attacks on Birth, Griffith made an even more ambitious film, Intolerance. Cutting among four stories in four periods of world history, from Babylonian times to the present, Intolerance made a plea for universal brotherhood (not specifically including Americans of color). In 1919 he directed Broken Blossoms, an early interracial love story (but involving a man who was Chinese, not black). But he never could erase the stain that Birth left on the body politic. By the time talking pictures replaced the silents in 1930, Griffith the innovator was Griffith the anachronism. As Agee wrote:

“Charlie Chaplin said, ‘The whole industry owes its existence to him.’ Yet of late years he could not find a job in the town he had invented. He clung to the shadows, a bald, eaglebeaked man, sardonic and alone. At parties, he sat drinking quietly, his sharp eyes panning the room for a glimpse of familiar faces, most of them long gone. David Wark Griffith had been The Master, and there was nobody quite like him afterwards.”

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