The Birth of a Nation (1915) Director: D.W. Griffith (David Wark Griffith)
I cannot, in good conscience, praise anything about the narrative of The Birth of a Nation. It is one of the more infamous retellings of the old “lost cause” narrative of the American Confederacy. The central theme is of a virtuous Southern civilization under the impending threat of a bestial, black uprising until a heroic vigilante group unites to form the Ku Klux Klan which defends law and order. It is a shockingly vulgar and revisionist narrative. However, if we can assess the film on its other merits, The Birth of a Nation comes to light as a technical and cinematic masterpiece. It was a dynamic leap forward in the possibilities for a burgeoning cinematic medium and it has since been a foundational work for every great director since. If the audience can look beyond the blatantly racist propaganda of the film, and appreciate the powerful techniques employed (i.e. cinematography, editing, and strategies to build dramatic tension and create clear heroes and villains), The Birth of a Nation can be discussed in a new light, not unlike other controversial propaganda films, such as The Battleship Potemkin or Triumph of the Will.
Originally entitled The Clansmen, after the novel of the same name by former North Carolina Baptist Minister Thomas Dixon, Jr. (1905), The Birth of a Nation was the first 12-reel film released in the United States, and it was the first to be screened in the White House for President Woodrow Wilson who remarked it was “like writing history with lightning.” It was the first film to utilize various techniques like panning and color tinting and intercutting/cross cutting and continuity editing (utilizing continuous space and time, and progressively increasing the length of cut scenes to build tension), and the first to employ a full musical score to be played alongside the film. When it was complete, the film was released in two parts.
Part I: Civil War America. The opening title reads: “A Plea for the Art of the Motion Picture: We do not fear censorship, for we have no wish to offend with improprieties or obscenities, but we do demand, as a right, the liberty to show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue-the same liberty that is conceded to the art of the written word-that art to which we owe the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.” Part I introduces the audience to two families just before the outbreak of the American Civil War: The Stonemans –a northern family whose father, Austin Stoneman, is an abolitionist congressman and whose character is clearly based on the real historical figure of Thaddeus Stevens. He has two sons and a daughter named Elsie (Lillian Gish). The other family we meet are the Camerons –a Southern family from South Carolina with two daughters, Margaret and Flora, and three sons, the most important being Ben Cameron. In the beginning, The Stonemans visit the Camerons and embrace as old friends –Ben Cameron falls in love with Elsie Stoneman- but when the Civil War begins, the young men join their respective armies, north and south. A title reads: “The bringing of the African to America planted the first seeds of disunion.” A rowdy, disorderly black militia attacks the Cameron house but it is rescued by a triumphant Confederate group of soldiers who chase the militia away. Later, Ben Cameron is injured at the Siege of Petersburg but he is rescued by Union soldiers who see him caring for a Union soldier. While still recovering, Elsie Stoneman cares for Ben in a Washington hospital, but the colonel informs him that he will be hanged for being a guerrilla warrior which leads the matriarch of the Cameron family to write an appeal to Abraham Lincoln, or “the Great Heart”, to release Ben Cameron. Mr. Lincoln obliges her wish and he also begins a process of rebuilding the South until he is assassinated on April 14, 1865. After Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre, which was filmed on an outdoor set, Austin Stoneman and other radical congressmen decide to punish the South and push forward new legislation privileging black Americans.
Part II: The opening title of Part II reads: “The agony which the South endured that a nation might be born. The blight of war does not end when hostilities cease.” Stoneman and his ally Silas Lynch, a mulatto who is portrayed as surreptitiously evil with an insatiable sexual appetite, travel to visit South Carolina where black soldiers now roam the streets, turning whites away from the ballot box, threatening them, and Lynch is elected Lieutenant Governor. The predominantly black legislature in South Carolina is infamously depicted as raucous and animalistic, without shoes, drinking alcohol, and eating chicken on the floor of the state legislature. They push through laws that are intended to degrade whites. One day he witnesses a group of adults attempting to scare children while dressed up as ghosts, Ben Cameron forms the Ku Klux Klan to maintain stability in the South, using the ghostly uniform as inspiration. Meanwhile, Gus a freedman and captain, follows Flora Cameron into the woods in an attempt to capture her and either marry or rape her (the fear and hatred of black people in this scene is blatantly apparent). She jumps off a large rock and falls to her death while Ben Cameron shows up too late to rescue her. The KKK hunts down Gus, tries him, and kills him leaving his corpse on Lynch’s doorstep. Lynch begins searching various homes for KKK costumes and arrests Ben Cameron’s father, but Ben and company rescue him and escape to a small cabin where two Union veterans are hiding out. The title reads: “The former enemies of North and South are united by their defense of their Aryan birthright.” Lynch captures Elsie in the hopes of marrying her and when her father, Austin Stoneman, finds out he is angered, Lynch physically subdues him. The KKK rides in full force to reclaim the town and Ben rescues Elsie from Silas Lynch. Ben and the clansmen then race to save the Cameron family surrounded in the cabin by black soldiers. On the next election day, black homes are surrounded by clansmen and intimidated so they do not vote. The honeymoons of Phil Stoneman and Margaret Cameron, and Ben Cameron with Elsie Stoneman are shown near the ocean. A scene with a war-like figure fades out over a mass of people and a scene of Christ fades in over the people, with the penultimate title reading: “Dare we dream of a golden day when the bestial War shall rule no more? But instead- the gentle Prince in the Hall of Brotherly Love in the City of Peace.”
The Birth of a Nation was the highest grossing film of the silent era. To see it in a New York theatre cost $2.00, which is the equivalent of about $17-$20 today. There was no script or notes written down for the film, Griffith had it all in his head and it was filmed on the present-day property of Universal Studios. It stars Lillian Gish “The First Lady of Cinema” (Elsie Stoneman) who is rumored to have had a romantic relationship with Griffith at the time, so he let her choose her own theme song in the score later called “The Perfect Song” for her character Elsie. She went on to star in other acclaimed Griffith films including Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm. Other stars include Mae Marsh (Flora Cameron) who also appeared in other Griffith films such as Intolerance, Man’s Genesis, and The Sands of Dee; Henry B. Walthall (Ben Cameron) who moved out to California with Griffith when he parted ways with Biograph but later left Griffith to appear in other major films; Miriam Cooper (Margaret Cameron) who Griffith told in one scene that her mother had just died in order to accurately capture her character’s despondency; George Siegmann (Silas Lynch) and Walter Long (Gus) who both controversially acted in blackface (Spike Lee has noted that true black actors would have played the parts with more honesty and nuance in this film, rather than as cartoonish caricatures). Other major names in the history of cinema have claimed unnamed parts in the film including John Ford, who claimed to portray a KKK member, Erich von Stroheim, who was already prone to dubious fanciful claims about his background, and Milton Berle who said he was a child in the film.
The film was accused of racism by the NAACP immediately following its release, and in response the NAACP organized large-scale riots and protests in major US cities. As such, the film was banned in major cities including Los Angeles and Chicago. On the flip-side, this film is also often credited with bringing about a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, which was reorganizing itself against blacks, Jews, Catholics, and immigrants. For years, The Birth of a Nation was used as a recruiting tool for the KKK and in some cases it is still used today to offer a sympathetic portrayal of the KKK. The film portrays African Americans as devious, licentious, and lazy subhumans, and naturally this repulsive imagery led to numerous accusations of racism against Griffith, who furiously denied them all, particularly in his next film, Intolerance (1916) which was intended to be a response to the public outcry against The Birth of a Nation. He also published a pamphlet entitled “The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America” (1916) to decry his critics. Lillian Gish apparently went to her grave denying that the film was racist.
The following are a collection of unique facts about the film: Many of the Civil War scenes were based on photographs, but the Reconstruction-era scenes in Part II were based on defamatory political cartoons, such as the Black legislature scenes. The battle scenes of the Civil War were actually filmed in the San Fernando Valley in California. During Lincoln’s assassination at the reconstructed Ford’s Theatre, Griffith had the actors actually perform lines from Our American Cousin, the play which was being performed the night President Lincoln was shot. Raoul Walsh, the great Hollywood director, played the part of John Wilkes Booth. At the film’s premiere in Los Angeles, D.W. Griffith hired the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra to play the entire score for the film, synchronized with the scenes. Louis B. Mayer, the future king of MGM, eventually purchased the distribution rights, a business move which allowed him to break into the film business alongside with other companies that were forming at the time: Mutual Film Corp., Triangle Film Corp., and Paramount Pictures. The original budget of the film was $40,000; then it grew to $60,000; and finally Griffith was forced to seek out new investors until the film finally cost $110,000 to make. The Birth of a Nation was one of the biggest box-office hits in cinematic history and it continues to be a controversial influence to this day.
Griffith was born and raised in La Grange, Kentucky as the 7th child in his family, and his father served as a colonel in the Confederate army. After his failure to sell a script to Edwin S. Porter of Edison Studios under the pseudonym of Lawrence Griffith, Porter hired Griffith to star in Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest. Later, Griffith joined Biograph studios where he filmed the first movie in Hollywood, California –In Old California. When Biograph stopped supporting his film ventures, he formed his own studio in California as Reliance-Majestic Studios, which dissolved after the box-office flop of Intolerance. Griffith, along with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin formed United Artists but Griffith fell into obscurity after his major films were released in the 1910s. Griffith had previously produced and directed Biograph’s The Rose of Kentucky (1911), which portrayed the KKK as a villainous organization, and this was his defense against continued accusations of racism.