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The Birth of a Nation (1915) - Northern Illinois University

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The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Artemus Ward
Dept. of Political Science
Northern Illinois University
• In 1619, the first Africans arrived in the English colonies, in
Jamestown, Virginia.
• Their status as enslaved people or servants was unclear, but laws
restricting the freedoms of Africans began to appear by the 1640s.
• Slave labor spread across the south’s tobacco, rice, and cotton
plantations. By the 1700s, the south had become a society whose
prosperity and way of life was intertwined with slavery. Slavery in the
English colonies provided a convenient source of unpaid labor.
• Whites used racial ideology to justify their enslavement of others.
They defined Africans as a distinct group of people with inferior status.
• If whites used racism to justify slavery, what would be the reason for
racism after slavery ended?
The Myth of the Exotic Primitive
The characteristics of the myth of the exotic primitive are these:
– Black people are naturally childlike. Thus they adjust easily to the most unsatisfactory
social conditions, which they accept readily and even happily;
– Black people are over-sexed, carnal sensualists dominated by violent passions;
– Black people are savages taken from a culture relatively low on the scale of human
Author Lorraine Hansberry outlined what she considered to be the genesis of the myth:
"The sixteenth-century spirit of mercantile expansionism that swept Europe, and gave rise to
colonial conquest and the European slave trade, was also father of a modem concept of
The concept made it possible to render the African a 'commodity' in the minds of white men,
and to alienate the conscience of the rising European humanism from identification with the
victims of that conquest and slave trade.
In order to accommodate programs of commerce and empire on a scale never before known
in history, the Negro had to be placed arbitrarily outside the pale of recognizable humanity in
the psychology of Europeans and, eventually, of white America.
Neither his soul nor his body was to be allowed to evoke empathy. He was to be — and,
indeed, became, in a created mentality of white men — some grotesque expression of the
mirth of nature; a fancied static vestige of the primeval past; an eternal exotic who, unlike
men, would not bleed when pricked nor revenge when wronged.
Thus for three centuries in Europe and America alike, buffoonery or villainy was his only
permissible role in the ball of entertainment or drama."
• The Birth of a Nation was almost certainly
the most important American film of the
silent era, both artistically and politically.
• It’s artistic achievements were so numerous
that it set the standard for epics
filmmaking—a genre that continues to this
• It’s political importance cannot be
overstated. When the film was released, its
content made it the first movie that went
beyond mere entertainment geared toward
lower and working class people to social
and political significance for the upper
classes and intellectuals.
• Its revisionist Civil-War-era history spawned
the modern-day Ku Klux Klan, set the stage
for Jim Crow laws, and continues to be
controversial in its racist portrayal of
Born in Kentucky in 1875, his father was Jacob “Roaring Jake”
Griffith a Confederate Army colonel in the Civil War.
He began his career as a play-write, but had little success and soon
turned to acting.
He moved to New York and began directing films. He worked for
Biograph and moved with them when they started to make movies in
He wanted to make longer films. Nearly all films of the time were
one-reel shorts (10 minutes) or two-reels. He started his own studio
and made The Birth of a Nation in 1915—a feature-length epic.
He saw film as an educational tool, rather than simply an
entertainment medium.
But his subsequent epics, which were costly to make, failed to make
significant profits. He moved from studio to studio until he founded
United Artists in 1919 with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and
Douglas Fairbanks.
While some of his films for UA made money, others did not. He
dropped out by 1924 and by 1931 he was no longer making films.
In 1936 he was hired to direct the famous earthquake sequence in
San Francisco.
But his big-budget, epic style of filmmaking no longer fit into the
increasingly rigid studio system.
Mostly forgotten by film-goers, he lived alone at the Knickerbocker
Hotel Los Angeles. In 1948 he was found unconscious in the lobby
and died of a cerebral hemorrhage on his way to the hospital.
In 1953, the Directors Guild of America instituted the D.W. Griffith
Award, its highest honor. However in 1999 the DGA announced that
the award would be renamed the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award
because The Birth of a Nation “helped foster racial stereotypes.”
Artistic Achievement
The film had always been widely regarded as an important artistic achievement in
the history of filmmaking.
D.W. Griffith made many movies before this epic film, but like most others of the
time, his earlier films were short, and only a few of them—including The Politician’s
Love Story (1909), The Iconoclast (1910), and The Reformers, or the Lost Art of
Minding One’s Own Business (1913)—touched on politics.
At over 3 hours, The Birth of a Nation, was the longest film ever made in America
up to that point.
It was also the most technically dazzling with its creative camera movement and
angles, close-ups, long shots, panning and tracking, crosscutting to simultaneously
occurring events, montage editing, iris shots, split screen, fade-ins and fade-outs,
and thoughtful framing and composition.
These techniques had been used before but never to such great effect and never
in such a way as to involve the audience so deeply.
Its content also gave it impact, a content so substantial and controversial that the
film, among the first to make people take movies seriously, helped spawn film
So many people saw it that it is widely credited with widening the film audience
beyond the working class to include the middle class and intellectuals.
• A notion based more on tradition or
convenience than fact.
• Film has always been casual in its
presentation of history.
• Driven by commercial considerations,
the need for wide audience appeal,
producers consistently distorted and
sanitized the past.
• In historical films Hollywood
hopelessly romanticizes characters
and events, invents love stories, and
fabricates “the composite character”
– a character that never existed as
such but embodies a mix of people
who might have done so, created in
order to move the plot along.
• The problem is not that history is
rewritten and transformed but that
people absorb and believe the history
that is presented in novels and film
instead of the actual history.
Civil War Silent Film Myths
Despite the fact that the South started the war and was winning until the
end of 1864 and their three decisive defeats in Alabama, Atlanta, and
Virginia, the South was always portrayed as underdogs.
The films always blamed the war on abolitionists, ignoring the intricacies of
slavery and the complicated political reality of the time such as
congressional division, upheaval in political parties, and secession, among
other issues.
Abraham Lincoln is always presented as saintly. His complex personal and
political life and his constant criticism from all circles is never dealt with.
White women were always shown as frail, delicate creatures who easily fall
in love with soldiers, despite the reality that they were as tough as
Southern men.
Most Southerners are shown as wealthy slaveholders. In reality, less than
25% if white Southerners owned any slaves at all. Most were middle or
lower class farmers who struggled to make a living. And it was these nonslaveholding farmers who fought and died on the battlefield, making it a
“rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”
Blacks are shown as abusing political power. The reality was that blacks
held majorities briefly in only two state legislatures and never had much
genuine power; the real problem was white carpetbaggers.
Most civil war silent films ended the same way: a reconciliation of the North
and South and a once again united country. Nothing could be further from
the truth. The devastated Southern economy, Reconstruction, the disputed
election of 1876, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow and racial
segregation were all ignored.
When Reconstruction is portrayed, as in Birth of a Nation and Gone With
the Wind, racial cooperation is ignored in favor of racist and stereotypical
portrayals of carpetbaggers and scalawags.
“Happy Darkies” or “Brutes”
• But perhaps the most damaging myths
portrayed in civil war silent-era films had to do
with slavery and race relations.
• Slaves were portrayed as helpful mammies,
obliging butlers, smiling carriage-drivers,
joyful cotton-pickers, and tap-dancing
• When the war broke out, slaves were
depicted as “happy darkies” eager to help
their owner save his plantation and defeat the
• Once the war ended, slaves either continued
to be “happy darkies”—so called “good souls”
who continued to help whites—or were evil
brutes: hideous, savage, violent male
predators who target helpless victims,
especially white women.
• Of course the opposite was true with white
men continuing to rape black women as they
had under slavery.
These myths were not simply the product of Hollywood
screenwriters, producers, and directors lounging
around swimming pools in Santa Monica.
Instead, their false history was built on earlier, carefully
crafted historical and cultural interpretations of the era
written and rewritten from the moment the war ended;
first by the post-Civil War press, for political reasons
and later by conservative white historians and teachers
who taught it as gospel in segregated classrooms.
By the time of the first silent-era civil war film, many
Americans had already come to accept dramatically
revised view of the events and people of the war. They
got their information from school texts, newspapers,
magazines, history books, novels, Broadway plays,
songs and poems…and then movies.
Griffith’s version of history—a romantic view of an Old
South where everything was fine until the North got
meddlesome—continues to endure.
The film’s message was regarded so seriously at the
time that schoolchildren throughout the country were
taken by their parents to The Birth of a Nation to learn
Subsequent movies on the subject—such as Gone
With The Wind—followed the same line, although with
less offensive racism.
To this day, many continue to subscribe to these
myths, partly due to the power of films that continue to
be watched, long after their original release dates.
The Need for a Mythical History?
This cultural cleansing and revising seemed necessary to
many, North and South, in order to reunite a nation
fractured by a four-year conflict that saw the deaths of more
than 620,000 American soldiers.
Most Northerners and Southerners hated each other.
One half of the country was victorious and the other half
emerged not only defeated, but having lost 1 out of every 4
adult white males and witnessed the destruction of dozens
of their towns and cities.
While triumphant Union soldiers paraded through New York,
Boston, and Washington at the end of the war, disheveled
Confederates returned to the smoking, burned-out ruins of
Richmond, Columbia, and Atlanta, the only Americans to
lose a war until Vietnam.
Southerners—soldiers and families—were devastated not
only by the physical damage the war caused but by the
psychological damage of losing the war, and with it the
slave system, as well as by a turbulent Reconstruction and
a morbid fear that they would always be subjugated by the
The only way for the nation to move on was for the war to
be seen as not started by anyone with no winners and
losers and a tragic outcome where everyone fought
Does this justify the propagation a mythical history?
In order to realize reunification, it was thought that history would have to
be rewritten so that Southerners would never again be seen as harsh
slaveowners or as the people who started and lost the war.
Some Northern businessmen invested heavily in the South, particularly in
railroads that would eventually help the Southern economy.
Novelists, playwrights and magazine writers reinvented Southern
slaveowners as noble cavaliers, fighting not for slavery but for states’
rights and the honor of their Southern women and families. Both sides
fought for the good of the Cause, no matter which cause, with a martyred
President Lincoln bringing both sides together.
Historians produced dozens of commercial works and school textbooks
that blurred and obscured the sharp edges of the conflict.
The true story of the civil war became lost in a tapestry of cultural history
woven together over several generations, with the result hat many
Americans came to see themselves the way the weavers desired.
The myth, through the power of the media, had become accepted history
to millions by the time the first feature-length movie was shown in 1903.
Filmmakers believed they were telling true stories and offering honest
characterizations. They told audiences that painstaking research went into
historical films and audiences believed them.
By 1910 Americans saw at least one film a week and by the 1930s they
saw two a week. Film quickly became the most powerful force in American
culture not to be replaced until the advent of TV a half-century later.
TV replays films over and over and Americans consume them in large
quantities. Americans are far more inclined to watch than to read and have
always seen films as their nation’s story.
The Civil War has been portrayed on film more than any other war: 500
silent-era and 200 sound films – nearly 3 times as many as WWII.
Adjusted for inflation, The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With The
Wind (1939) are among the top 5 commercially successful box office films
of all time.
The Clansman:
An Historical Romance About the Ku Klux Klan (1905)
• The second book in author Thomas
Dixon’s trilogy on Reconstruction, the
novel served to revive the Klan in the
South and served as propaganda for
racial prejudice and segregation.
• Its language was even more racist
than the film it was based on. For
example: “for a thick-lipped, flatnosed, spindle-shanked Negro,
exuding his nauseous animal odor, to
shout in derision over the hearths and
homes of white men and women is an
atrocity too monstrous for belief.”
• Dixon said of the medium of film: “The
moving picture man is not merely the
purveyor of a from of entertainment.
He is leading a revolution in the
development of humanity—as
profound a revolution as that which
followed the first invention of print.”
The Civil War:
• The story centers on two families: the Southern Camerons and the
Northern Stonemans. Their friendship as the film begins symbolizes a
united country.
• But Griffith’s politics soon become apparent: the “first seeds of disunion,”
one of the titles explains, were planted by the “bringing of the African to
this country.”
• Griffith blames the Civil War and its aftermath on blacks and politicians—
with the exception of Abraham Lincoln, who is treated reverentially.
• Griffith’s once-happy families illustrate the consequences of these events
when they are divided by a war that the movie labels “futile and
Civil War
• The large and lavish battle sequences must have moved audience
• In these scenes, masses of men move through the smoke of firing
cannons, falling and dying.
• The younger sons of the Northern and Southern families die in each
other’s arms, reiterating Griffith’s point that a hateful war has divided a
loving people.
• Later, the director suggests the devastating effect of Sherman’s march
through the South with a single close-up of a trembling, fatherless family,
from which the camera pans to marching troops in the valley below.
Abraham Lincoln
• Griffith venerates Lincoln and absolves him
of any responsibility for the War.
• In a carefully composed scene replicating
the signing of the proclamation calling up the
first troops, Lincoln is seated apart from the
other politicians to make the point that he is
different, that his only motive is to do good.
• When the signing is completed, the camera
lingers on Lincoln, alone and looking
miserable about what he has just done.
• Later, as the war comes to an end, he
argues against those in his cabinet who
would be vindictive toward the South.
• And when he is assassinated in another
meticulously reconstructed sequence, the
title announces that “our best friend is gone.”
• The deification of Lincoln as martyred saint
has been common throughout film history.
As the fighting ends and Reconstruction begins, the
film follows Dixon’s story more closely, and its view of
history grows more and more distorted.
The elder Cameron brother returns to his
impoverished, grieving family, which becomes the
focus of the film.
He is soon followed by Senator Stoneman, who
represents the evil, vindictive forces of Reconstruction,
who hopes to build a presidential career by
reorganizing the South with carpetbaggers, black
voters, and black politicians. His only motive is
personal ambition, and his evil, racially embittered
mulatto house servant and mistress encourages him.
In a state legislature, we see Stoneman’s black
puppets in power—slovenly, barefoot politicians
slouching in their chambers and lustfully eyeing the
white women in the galleries.
Senator Stoneman’s immediate goal is to put his
protГ©gГ©, the mulatto Silas Lynch, in charge of the
state, making him “the peer of any white man living.”
Stoneman’s plan for Lynch sours in the end, however,
when Lynch, taking Stoneman’s promise seriously and
acting as the white man’s peer, pursues Stoneman’s
daughter Elsie, played with doll-like sweetness by
Lillian Gish.
• Griffith’s portrayal of African-Americans is blatantly racist.
• All are either evil or stupid and, perhaps most offensively, most
are played by white actors in blackface.
• He tried to “soften” the racism of the novel by adding the “good
souls,” the Camerons’ happy and loyal house servants.
• Does the “good souls” technique help?
• What if films from this period only portrayed African-Americans
as “good souls”?
The Rise of the KKK
• Flora Cameron (Mae Marsh)—another doll-like
daughter—skips into the woods to fetch water; an
indication of how low the family has fallen since the
• Diverted by the antics of a squirrel, she wanders too
far and is spotted by Gus, and evil black man.
• His eyes bulge with lust as he follows her through
the woods; hers bulge with fear when she spots
him. She runs, he follows, and she throws herself
off a precipice rather than submit to the advances
she assumes his is about to make.
• Distraught, her brother sees some white children
garbed in white sheets frightening black kids and an
idea is born.
• He forms a fraternity of white men who wreak
vengeance as hey ride through the night in white
costumes “made by women” and the Ku Klux Klan
is born.
• Their mission: to protect the purity and sanctity of
white women from rapacious black men intent on
raping them.
The KKK:
Myth and Reality
• The Ku Klux Klan were the vehicle that Southern whites used to
crush Reconstruction and reassert their political and economic
domination of the South.
• Their ideology was race-based and their main tactic violence at
night and by ambush against outnumbered and unarmed former
• However, in the The Birth of a Nation, the Klan is depicted as
fighting against rapacious armed men.
• Dr. Allen Trelease, professor of history at the University of NC at
Greensboro and author of the definitive study, White Terror: The Ku
Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction, found that
there was not a single incident of Klansmen participating in any
confrontation which might be loosely be described as a "fair fight.“
• Films from the early 1900s portrayed women as sex objects for male
• By the 1910s, a feminine ideal was promoted. Women were shown as
maternal, religiously pious, and submissive—treated with reverence but
only as objects: the doll-like possessions of men.
• At a time when women were fighting for the vote, Griffith’s attitude was far
from progressive. He depicts women protecting their chastity at all costs,
wearing heavy skirts, sweeping floors, preparing meals, and praying.
• The Birth of a Nation even equates America’s national identity with the
virginity and racial purity of a female character by requiring she kill herself
rather than risk being raped by a renegade black soldier, thereby
martyring herself for the “birthed” nation’s new order of racial segregation.
The Film’s Climactic Scene at Uncle Tom’s Cabin
In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe published the anti-slavery
book Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
After the bible, it was the best selling book of the 19th
century. It inspired countless plays and later films.
Though it was critical of the institution of slavery it also
helped popularize a number of stereotypes about black
people: the lazy, carefree "happy darky”; the light-skinned
tragic mulatto as a sex object; the affectionate, darkskinned female “mammy”; the ”pickaninny” stereotype of
black children; the “Uncle Tom”, an African-American who
is too eager to please white people.
The Birth of a Nation deliberately used a cabin similar to
Uncle Tom's home in the film's dramatic climax, where
several white Southerners unite with their former enemy
(Yankee soldiers) to defend what the film's caption says is
their "Aryan birthright” – just as Lynch is about to rape Elsie
According to scholars, this reuse of such a familiar cabin
would have resonated with, and been understood by,
audiences of the time.
The film ends with Elsie saved and Senator Stoneman is
chastised for having betrayed not only his people but also
his own daughter through his alliance with blacks.
In Dixon’s view, somewhat obscured in the film, this scene
marks the birth of a white nation unified by the pain of war.
Griffith’s portrait of politics and politicians made use of stereotypes and
conventions that later became entrenched in the movies.
He used the contrasting stereotypes of the saintly leader (Lincoln) and the evil
politician (Stoneman and Lynch).
He provided the kind of populist, collective solution that is seen in later political
films: instead of seeking a leader to help them or working through the regular
political process, Griffith’s oppressed white Southerners banded together, forming
a vigilante group, and took the law into their own hands.
Griffith’s later films also promoted the view that most politicians were evil and
corrupt, motivated by base self-interest.
Intolerance (1916)—which many consider Griffith’s masterpiece—consists of 4
interwoven stories, set in different historical periods, on the theme of intolerance.
Made partly to refute the charges of racism provoked by The Birth of a Nation,
Intolerance condemned persecution and criticized the excesses of capitalism—
only the be labeled “Communist” itself.
In Orphans of the Storm (1921), a movie about the French Revolution, he made it
clear that rule of the masses was not acceptable either.
He went on to make America (1924), a Revolutionary War epic, and the sound
movie Abraham Lincoln (1930).
Objections to the film were intense when it was released.
Many reviewers condemned its racism, including a New
York Times critic who called it “inflammatory” and
“controversial” even as he praised it as an “impressive
new illustration of the scope of the motion picture
The NAACP organized a precedent-setting national
boycott of the film, probably the first such effort and one
of the most successful.
There were mass demonstrations that turned to riots
when the film was shown in Boston and Philadelphia,
among other cities.
It was banned in Chicago, Ohio, Denver, Pittsburgh, St.
Louis, and Minneapolis.
The mayor of New York ordered the License
Commissioner to cut some of the most offensively racist
material. About 500 feet were deleted, much of it the
result of Griffith’s attention to test audience response.
Griffith deleted scenes of blacks molesting white women
as well as the final scene in which blacks are deported to
While no one knows for certain what all of the cut material
contained, Francis Hackett in the New
Republic commented: “The drama winds up with a
suggestion of Lincoln's solution — back to Liberia — and
then, if you please, with a film representing Jesus Christ
in the halls of brotherly love.”
• Despite the protests and criticism,
The Birth of a Nation was the
blockbuster of its day—the second
biggest box-office success of the
silent film era, second only to King
Vidor’s antiwar film The Big Parade
• Lillian Gish, who Griffith made a star,
remarked: “They lost track of the
money it made.”
• Immediately perceived as a classic, it
was rereleased in 1921, 1922, and
• Some 200 million people saw it
before 1946.
Mr. Dixon Goes to Washington
• After the film’s release, Dixon went on his own
campaign to promote it.
• He said: “The real purpose of my film was to
revolutionize Northern audiences that would transform
every man into a Southern partisan for life.”
• Dixon met with President Woodrow Wilson who
screened it at the White House– the first film to be
shown in the executive mansion. Wilson commented
on the film, “It is like writing history with lightning.”
• Wilson was so enthusiastic that he introduced Dixon
to Chief Justice Edward White of the U.S. Supreme
Court to whom Dixon wanted to show the film. White
asked Dixon: “You tell the true story of the Klan?”
Dixon answered: “Yes — for the first time.” White
leaned toward Dixon and said in low, tense tones: “I
was a member of the Klan, sir. Through many a dark
night I walked my sentinel's beat through the ugliest
streets of New Orleans with a rifle on my shoulder.
You've told the true story of that uprising of outraged
manhood?” Dixon answered: “In a way I'm sure you'll
approve.” White announced “I'll be there.”
• The film was a vivid, dramatic rewriting of history that suited a
lot of people at a time when blacks were migrating to the
North in great numbers and racism was increasing there.
• On the film’s release, gangs of whites roamed city streets
attacking blacks.
• In Lafayette, Indiana, a white man killed a black teenager
after seeing the movie.
• The film promoted racism and racial segregation laws
• Intentionally or not, the film also promoted the revival of the
Klan outside the South.
Revival of the Klan
The Klan had disbanded in 1869.
But Dixon’s book and Griffith’s film caused a
At the film’s premier in June 1915 in Atlanta, 25,000
former Klansmen marched down Peachtree Avenue to
celebrate its opening.
The film provided the Klan with the finest possible
publicity for its revival. The modern Klan began its
clandestine cruelty on Thanksgiving night, 1915, on
Stone Mountain in Atlanta.
By the mid-1920s their ranks reached 4 million.
Over the years, The Birth of a Nation has not only
been used as a successful recruiting tool for the Klan,
it has also provided a kind-of valorizing template for
their 20th century anti-civil rights activities.
For example, the first post-civil war Klan never burned
crosses, but the book and film’s portrayal of the
practice resulted in the practice’s adoption by the
modern Klan.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor explained this in her
majority opinion in the landmark cross-burning case
Virginia v. Black (2003), where the U.S. Supreme
Court struck down a state law criminalizing crossburning on free speech/expression grounds.
• D.W. Griffith was a pioneering filmmaker who showed that
skillfully crafted, epic (long-form) movies about serious
topics could be both commercially successful and have
dramatic effects on society.
• But novelty of technique and radiance of form do not
compensate for unholy material.
• The Birth of a Nation was a reflection and perpetuation of a
mythological rewriting of what actually happened during
slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction that started as
soon as the war ended and continues to this day.
• The Birth of a Nation helped revive the KKK, bolster Jim
Crow laws, and perpetuate racial stereotypes.
Brownlow, Kevin, Hollywood: The Pioneers (New York: Knopf, 1979).
Christensen, Terry and Peter J. Haas, Projecting Politics: Political Messages in
American Films (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2005) pp. 64-8.
Pinsky, Mark I., “Racism, History, and Mass Media: Birth of a Nation, Gone with the
Wind, and The Greensboro Massacre,” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
28 (1983): 66-7.
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