Today is the 100th anniversary of the opening of Birth of A Nation, at Clunes Auditorium in Los Angeles.
The first feature length film ever produced (three hours and ten minutes), this film was the technical and acting tour de force of its day, developing and creating filmic techniques that are still employed — night shots, panoramic shots, panning, iris effects, color tinting, spectacular battlefield reenactments with loads of extras, the still shot, scenes filmed from multiple angles, parallel action and editing, close-ups, fadeouts, lap dissolves, and cross-cutting to name a few.
The problem with the film, of course, is that it described the founding, not of our country, but of the KKK, the white supremacist “nation,” and how it saved the South after the Civil War. This film exemplifies the rewritten history of the Civil War and Reconstruction known as “The Lost Cause,” composed by the South who was absolutely committed to not allowing newly freed blacks to exercise any of the rights they won after the Civil War. The KKK is glorified. Blacks are denigrated. History is turned on its head.
The film was directed by D.W. Griffith and starred Lillian Gish. Griffith’s own father fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War and was wounded. He suffered for many years after as a result from these wounds and died a relatively young man. Griffith was clearly infused with the passion of the Lost Cause and never really understood the protests against the blatant racism in his film.
Many actors who portrayed black characters, especially those who come into contact with the white actors, were white people in black face, due to discriminatory hiring practices in the film industry at the time. Real blacks had minor roles. The stereotypical portrayals of people of color make this film very difficult to watch, cringe-worthy, and in many scenes where the black people are actually played by white people, patently surreal (especially as the black face is often sloppily applied).
Though the film was a commercial success (over $60 million in its first run), it fomented a lot of protest from the black community, including riots in Boston and Philadelphia. The NAACP tried to shut it down. When that proved impossible, they worked to get key racist scenes excised. After the film’s opening, gangs of whites attacked blacks. One teenager was killed in Lafayette Indiana by a white man after viewing the film. Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and St. Louis refused to allow the film to open in their cities because of the potential for racial unrest. It also caused a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan who increased their membership dramatically after 1915. Until the 70s, the Klan used this film as a recruiting tool.
This was the first film to be shown inside the White House and there is an apocryphal story that Woodrow Wilson, another son of the south, claimed, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” This quote appears in the opening of the film. Quotes from Woodrow Wilson’s history book he had written, concerned with the period of Reconstruction, are presented on intertitles before Part 2 of the film, “legitimizing” the history presented in the movie.
The Library of Congress has deemed this film worthy of preservation in its National Film Registry and it was voted in the top 100 films in the American Film Institute. It is said that when Hitler and Mussolini saw this film, they immediately understood the power of film as propaganda and employed its persuasiveness in support of their own political agenda.
On this 100th anniversary of the original Birth of a Nation, its title has been reclaimed with a new Birth of a Nation which debuted at Sundance a week ago. The 19th century slave rebellion of Nat Turner is what this new “Birth” is about, directed and acted by Nate Parker, winning both the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award. Fox Searchlight bought the film for distribution for $17.5million. Perhaps, a century later, history has finally righted itself.