On February 8 in 1915, D.W. Griffith’s film “Birth of a Nation” had it’s premiere at Clyne’s Auditorium in Los Angeles. This event is important for the history of the Cinema because the silent movie was America’s first feature length film, lasting over three hours. It was also a huge box-office hit in which Griffith pioneered many film-making techniques which are central to the art today.
“The Birth of a Nation” Creates and Perpetuates Racial Stereotypes
It is also an important event for African American history, but for very negative reasons. While it was indeed cinematically ground-breaking, in terms of it’s racist depiction of the post-Civil War era, it is also regarded as one of the offensive films ever made. Based on Thomas Dixon’s novel “The Clansman”, the film follows the 1860’s history of two fictional families from the North and South. While it is meticulous in it’s attention to detail in some scenes such as Civil War battles, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, it is thoroughly malicious in it’s depiction of African Americans, who are uniformly portrayed as degenerate, lazy, and dangerous. For this reason, while it was seen by millions, and lauded by many – no less than President Woodrow Wilson called the film “History written with lightening”– it also caused a storm of controversy with the recently formed NAACP campaigning to have it banned. A sampling of some of the reaction:
The “Critical” Reaction:
“Griffith struck it right when he adapted the Dixon story for the film. He knew the South and he knew just what kind of picture would please all white classes. Some places the censors are going to find fault. That’s a persistent way some censors have. The scene of the “black congress” and the negro removing his shoe may be censured, but it’s drawn from reported facts. It’s worth seeing anywhere. Many will see it twice, yea thrice and still obtain much satisfaction and entertainment.” – Mark Vance, “Variety” issue of March 12, 1915.
“We do not, in any state of the Union, grant to the Negro economic and political economy. No white man of proper feeling can be proud of the record. The wonder is that the negro is as good as he is. The to the injury is added slander. To make a few dirty dollars men are willing to pander to depraved tastes and to foment a race antipathy that is the most sinister and dangerous feature of American life.” – Editorial in “the New York Globe” issue of April 6, 1915.
“Your editorial is an insult to the intelligence and human kindness of nearly 100,000 of the best people in New York City who have viewed this picture from artistic interests and not through any depraved taste such as you indicate. Included in this list is your own able critic, Edwin Sherwin of the Globe.” – D.W. Griffith replying in “the Globe” on April 10, 1915. (Above: D.W. Griffith)
“Whatever happened during Reconstruction, this film is aggressively vicious and defamatory. It is spiritual assassination. It degrades the censors that passed it and the white race that endures it.” – Francis Hackett in “The New Republic”, March 20, 1915.
“In view of the fact that the film play known as “Birth of a Nation” is creating strenuous objection to it’s presentation by the citizens of Dayton, Ohio, and in view of the fact that it is considered and recognized as a hatred breeding film as opposed to amicable relations between the white and colored citizenship, be it resolved that out of deference to the well-being of all citizens, the Commissioners of Dayton, Ohio condemn the presentation of the film “Birth of a Nation” at this time, and lend their influence both severally and collectively, in an effort to prohibit it’s exhibitions.” – Resolution of Dayton, Ohio Commissioners, March 7, 1915.
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“The Birth of a Nation” Directed by D.W. Griffith, 1915
“D.W. Griffith’s the Birth of a Nation: A History of the Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time” by Melvyn Stokes, Oxford University Press, New York, 2007.