Birth of a Nation

The Immensely Popular, Racist Film of 1915

Scene from the film, Birth of a Nation
Two actors playing Ku Klux Klansmen riding hooded horses in a scene from D. W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation." (1915). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

On February 18, 1915, the silent film Birth of a Nation (originally titled The Clansman) by director/producer D.W. Griffith premiered at Clune's Auditorium in Los Angeles, California. The 12-reel, three-hour-long film was a first in American film history for its length, cost, music, and popularity. What it is best remembered for, however, is its racism. Bigoted but presenting itself as a historically accurate representation of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, the film riled up racism and was a direct cause of the revival of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

What Was Birth of a Nation About?

Birth of a Nation was based on a novel and play written by Thomas Dixon Jr. (1864-1946). Having grown up in North Carolina during the Reconstruction era, Dixon was appalled after watching a stage play of Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous  in 1901. He vowed to write what he believed to be a more accurate history of the South during Reconstruction.

Using his own experiences as well as memories of his father and uncle's involvement in the Ku Klux Klan, Dixon wrote The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Klu Klux Klan, which was first published in 1905. D.W. Griffith, the producer and director of Birth of a Nation, took pieces from both Dixon's novel and play to create his epic film.

The novel, and thus the film, revolved around the interwoven lives of two,` white families: the Northern Stonemans and the Southern Camerons. The film was broken up into two halves, separated by a short intermission.

The first half covered the period of the Civil War and the second half covered Reconstruction.

The main purpose of the story was to depict the harshness of the North's policy of rapid Reconstruction after the Civil War by emphasizing the threat of freed and empowered blacks upon Southern whites. The film portrayed members of the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) as "knights in shining white armor" who rescued the maidenhood of Southern white women.

According to one of the film's title cards, the KKK "saved the South from the anarchy of black rule."

Incredibly Racist

Nearly everything about the film was racist. The entire premise of the second half of Birth of a Nation was to portray blacks as scheming, threatening, uncivilized, uncouth, uneducated, disheveled, untrustworthy, and hell-bent on marrying white women.

One of the more infamous scenes of the film appears just under two hours into the movie; it presents a "historical facsimile" of the North Carolina State House of Representatives in session in 1871 after blacks swept the elections. While in assembly, black representatives are shown constantly eating and drinking alcohol. Another black representative was shown taking his shoes off to let his bare feet rest on his desk.

There were many other scenes showing blacks -- many of whom were really white actors covered in black paint -- acting aggressive to whites, either pushing them or yelling at them. Even the orchestral score that accompanied such scenes was racist, called "The Motif of Barbarism."

This all builds up to the lynching. It begins with young, sweet, innocent Flora Cameron going out alone to fetch water. She is watched, stalked, and ultimately chased by black Gus, who declares he wants to marry her.

Afraid, Flora runs. After a long chase sequence, she reaches the top of a rocky hill and when Gus follows her to the top, she jumps in order to preserve her honor. Just before she dies, she is able to tell her brother who it was that had chased her.

Big brother Ben and other KKK clansmen find fleeing Gus, give him a "trial," and then lynch him. They then take his dead body and throw it onto the front porch of the lieutenant governor's house. The lynching is portrayed as heroic.

Understandably, the NAACP and other pro-black organizations wanted to stop the showing of Birth of a Nation. There were nationwide protests, with a massive struggle to ban and/or censor the film. Unfortunately, the film industry and the laws regarding it were still so new that there was no precedent as to what to do with such a controversial film.

The end result was that it was widely shown and the controversy that it stirred helped fuel the publicity around it.

If so Racist, Why Did Many Think the Movie Was Amazing?

Before Birth of a Nation, silent films were usually just one-reel, about 15 minutes long, made cheaply, played in slipshod nickelodeon theaters, and accompanied by random music. Birth of a Nation was none of that. It was novel in nearly every way and became the precursor for all future full-length feature films.

The Birth of a Nation was different than everything that had come before it. First, it was long, running about three hours. It also cost an exorbitant amount to make -- $100,000 (equivalent to more than $2.3 million in today's money). No American film had ever cost so much..It was shown in classy theaters, for which people payed a whopping $2 per ticket, much closer to the cost of live theater. Realizing that music could aid in the power of the film, director/producer D.W. Griffith hired Joseph Carl Breil to write musical scores to specifically accompany the film. 

While other films' story lines were weak, this one was strong, emotional, and riveting. Night scenes as well as battle scenes were new and realistic. It was so different and so unique that scores of people came out to see it. Soon, hundreds of thousands. Ultimately, it is estimated to have had a worldwide audience of up to 200 million. Even the President of the United States watched Birth of a Nation.

Shown at the White House

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was still in mourning for his beloved wife, Ellen, when Birth of a Nation was released. This meant he was unable to go out to a screening. However, long-time friend Thomas Dixon Jr., the author of the book and play the movie was based upon, asked President Wilson to host a private screening of the film at the White House; thus, on March 21, 1915, Birth of a Nation became the very first film shown at the White House.

It has been reported, but unsubstantiated, that at the end of the film, President Wilson said, "It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true."

Aftermath

Controversy over Birth of a Nation has continued ever since its first release. Critics and viewers have struggled between admiration for the film's innovation and with the abhorrence of its racial attitudes. The Klu Klux Klan, on the other hand, had no reservations about the film; they used it for decades, at least until the 1970s, as a propaganda and training film.  

Birth of a Nation remains one of the most influential and controversial films of all time.