There was no mistaking the heroes of The Birth of a Nation in the most widely used of several posters.
The premier of D. W. Griffith’s epic The Birth of a Nation on February 8, 1915 was just the beginning of its vast influence for good and mostly bad. One of the most celebrated films in cinema history it has been lauded and reviled. On one hand the schizophrenic flick was a stunning technical and artistic breakthrough from America’s most accomplished director—an epic on a scale never before seen chocked full of camera and editing techniques that exploded the visual vocabulary of the medium, made long-form cinema viable, and raised the ante on the low-brow comedies, turgid melodramas, and shoot ‘em ups that had dominated the silver screen. On the other hand it was proudly and avowedly racist, romantic propaganda for night riding terrorists, and the inspiration for a resurgence of lynching and wide-spread attacks on Black Communities like East St. Louis that year; the race riots of 1919 in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere; and the destruction of the prosperous Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa in 1921 and the town of Greenwood, Florida in 1925.
Fresh American racial tensions and the rise of neo-Jim Crowism in the new Alt-Right and the empowered voice of a new generation in the Black Lives Matter movement have revived attention to this powerful cultural skeleton that can’t be kept in the nation’s closet.
Symbolic of that is the PBS Independent Lens film Birth of a Movement which premiered in 2017. The documentary chronicled:
…Boston-based African American newspaper editor and activist William M. Trotter [who] waged a battle against D.W. Griffith’s technically groundbreaking but notoriously Ku Klux Klan-friendly The Birth of a Nation, unleashing a fight that still rages today about race relations, media representation, and the power and influence of Hollywood. Birth of a Movement, based on Dick Lehr's book The Birth of a Movement: How Birth of a Nation Ignited the Battle for Civil Rights, captures the backdrop to this prescient clash between human rights, freedom of speech, and a changing media landscape.
D.W. Griffith, right, directs a scene as his trusty cinematographer Billy Blizer cranks the camera.
Griffith was born the son of a Confederate officer on January 22, 1875 in rural Kentucky. His father died when he was 10 leaving the family in poverty and costing them the family farm. His mother’s attempt to operate a Louisville boarding house collapsed and Griffith was force to leave school at 15 to support the family clerking in a dry goods store and then a bookstore. The bookstore offered an opportunity at self-education. Later, he became stage struck and signed on to one of the touring companies that came through town working his way up from walk-ons and bit parts. He also dabbled unsuccessfully as a playwright.
In 1907 he submitted a script to the Edison Studios in New York. Producer Edwin Porter was not impressed with the script but gave the young actor a part in Edison’s most ambitious picture to date, Rescued from an Eagles Nest. The next year he landed a small part in a Biograph film. After the company’s main director Wallace McCutcheon took ill and was unable to work, company co-founder Harry Marvin tapped the young man as his replacement. It was a testament to how new the medium was and how little regard those who ran the business had for directors and actors, who were considered disposable and interchangeable.
After his first short, The Adventures of Dollie Griffith churned out 47 more one and two reelers at Biograph’s assembly line. Each film was an on-the-job education and Griffith was a fast learner working with innovative camera man G. W. “Billy” Bitzer. Griffith’s films were successful helping to establish the struggling studio as an industry leader. He was given his own quasi-independent production unit.
In 1910 Griffith took the unit to the West Coast where he shot Old California, the first film shot in the Los Angeles development of Hollywood Land and which first paired him with Biograph’s rising young star Lillian Gish. Griffith stayed out west enjoying the reliable sunshine and good weather for outdoor shooting frequently working with Gish.
But Griffith itched for more ambitious projects. In 1914 he pushed the reluctant studio into allowing him to make his first feature film—one of the first ever shot in the U.S.—the Biblical epic Judith of Bethulia starring Blanche Sweet and Griffith’s favorite leading man, the diminutive Alabaman Henry B. Walthall. But it was an expensive film costing more than $30,000 to shoot to his exacting standards. Biograph was appalled and resisted his efforts to make more features causing him to exit the company. Still, when the film was released, it was a hit and made money.
Griffith took his entire unit and stock company first to competing Mutual Films and then formed a studio with the Majestic Studio manager Harry Aitken which became known as Reliance-Majestic Studios, later renamed Fine Arts Studio. To launch his new venture, Griffith searched for source material with the epic historical sweep that appealed to him. What he found was Thomas F. Dixon, Jr.’s 1905 novel The Clansman and the successful play that Dixon had penned based on it.
The title page of Dixon's The Clansman in its first edition.
The book was already famous—and both controversial and notorious for its portrayal of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the Reconstruction era as the heroic defenders of pure White womanhood and valiant resistance to tyrannical oppression by carpet bagging Yankees and their crude and dangerous Black political puppets. Griffith resonated with the tale with every fiber of his un-reconstructed Confederate being.
Although some claim that he was naïve about the backlash that making the film would cause, Griffith was eager to use the property to shovel the last spadesful of dirt onto the corpse of Black equality. Dixon was at first skeptical about making the film, but Griffith won him over with an offer $10,000—a huge sum—for the rights to the play and Dixon’s work on a film script.
It was money Griffith didn’t have and couldn’t pay especially as production costs for the epic piled up. He had already had to borrow much of the capital from the savings of his cinematographer Blitzer. When he could not make good on the promised payment, he instead offered Dixon 25% of the profits—the first such arrangement if film history. It turned out to be a very good deal for Dixon when the movie became the biggest money maker of all time, a claim it held unchallenged until the release of Gone With the Wind in 1939. Dixon made millions from the film—far more than Griffith who owed everybody to pay for it.
As production got underway, Griffith and Blitzer collaborated on the innovative techniques that would thrill and captivate cinema buffs for generations including close-ups, fade-outs, and certain kinds of tracking and panning shots. A carefully staged battle sequence made with the technical advice of West Point instructors who also lent Civil War era artillery pieces and authenticated arms and uniforms employed hundreds of extras carefully staged to look like thousands. The long form allowed the script to carefully build tension over time to a dramatic climax and the film was one of the first to mix fiction with historic scenes and personages. In post-production tinting was used for dramatic effect in some scenes and a score for full orchestra was composed by Joseph Carl Breil to be performed with screenings of the three hour epic.
Henry B. Walthall was the dashing hero as the Confederate Little Colonel in the most realistic battle scenes yet filmed--so realistic that some Civil War veterans swore that they had to have been shot in the heat of real battle.
In addition to stars Lillian Gish and Henry B. Walthall as the “Little Colonel”—the heroic Confederate officer who rallies oppressed Whites to strike against Reconstruction and uppity Negros in the robes of the Ku Klux Klan—the cast included several notables including another major female star, Mae Murray, and future stars and character actors Wallace Reid, future director Joseph Henabery as Abraham Lincoln, Donald Crisp as Ulysses S. Grant, future Tarzan Elmo Lincoln, Eugene Pallette, directing great Raoul Walsh as John Wilkes Booth, and western reliable Monte Blue. Blacks were sometimes portrayed by white actors in blackface like George Siegmann as the mulatto henchman to a carpet bagging Yankee , Walter Long as a lusty renegade who attacks a pure white woman, and Jennie Lee as Mammy helping to invent an enduring cinema stereotypes.
Even as shooting and post-production was underway, intense publicity about the upcoming epic began to stir concern and opposition, especially from the infant National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which had been founded only six years earlier by W. E. B. Dubois, Ida B. Welles, Mary Ovington, Henry Moscowitz, and others. Defiant and undaunted Griffith push ahead with plans to unveil his film.
The NAACP objected to scenes like this where a would-be black rapist is terrorized, The miscreant was played by white actor Walter Long in blackface.
The film opened at Clune’s Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles still bearing the title of the book and play, The Clansman. The very name was a red flag to Blacks and their liberal allies. The public furor intensified, especially in Northern cities where newspapers editorialized against it, petitions were launched to ban it, and noisy public meetings were raising a ruckus. The South, on the other hand, was in rapturous anticipation of its release to their theaters and it was hailed as vindication. Much of the country was simply eager to see the much talked about spectacle.
Before bringing his film east, Griffith re-named it The Birth of a Nation. Some saw it as an attempt to placate critics. But Griffith stuck by his opinions he just tried to finesse them by claiming that the U.S. emerged from the Civil War and Reconstruction as a nation unified by a common faith in White racial superiority and the necessity of suppressing Black animal urges. “The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright” a title card at the end of the picture reads. From a public relations stand point he reaped the box office benefits of the original title in the South while placating the qualms of the least aware white Northerners.
After the film's release rioting erupted in Philadelphia, Boston, and other cities with mobs of whites attacking Black that they found on the streets.
The film opened in New York and other major cities beginning on March 3 and was greeted by NAACP pickets. Major and minor riots erupted in Boston, Philadelphia, and elsewhere, mostly attacks on protestors and any Blacks that White mobs could lay their hands on. A number of murders around the country of Blacks were attributed to men who had recently seen the film. Despite, and probably because, of the violence and controversy record crowds thronged theaters.
And Griffith still had an ace up his sleeve. Dixon was a former college classmate of President Woodrow Wilson. The former Princeton President, New Jersey governor and leading Democratic progressive was the son of a Virginia mother with unreconstructed Confederate sympathies. As President he had already dismantled the tattered shreds of voting rights enforcement and other protections under the 14th Amendment effectively driving a stake into the heart of remnants of Reconstruction. He had also re-segregated all Federal agencies and services. Wilson was more than happy to host a screening of The Birth of a Nation in the White House—the first film ever shown there—and to enthusiastically tell the press it was “like writing history with lightning.” Not only did Griffith exploit the endorsement in his well-oiled publicity campaign but he added a title card to the film quoting from Wilson’s History of the American People.
A title card exploited Wilson's reported praise of the film by quoting from his History of the American People.
Although some cities, including Chicago, did ban the film in fear of explosive racial unrest, huge crowds in other cities more than made up for it. And even in most of those cities, the movie was eventually screened after the initial wave of protests subsided.
Griffith marketed the film as no picture ever had been before. He invented the road show. Instead of being shown in the shoe box movie houses of the era, little more commodious and comfortable than the nickelodeons of the film industry’s infancy he rented the leading auditoriums, legitimate theaters, opera houses, concert halls, and vaudeville palaces in each city. Instead of plucking down a nickel or a dime at the box office, movie goers were advised to buy reserve tickets at up to $1 a pop. That might not seem like much today, but it was 20 times the cost of most movie admissions. Local orchestras had to be engaged and rehearsed in the elaborate score. Meanwhile the city was flooded with handbills, posters, and newspaper advertising. The local elite turned out in white tie and tails, furs and ball gowns as if attending the opera. The working class scrimped and saved for reduced admissions at Saturday and Sunday matinees and showed up in their best mail-order suits, celluloid collars and most stylish dresses. The film ran not just for two or three days, but for as long as the crowds kept coming—weeks in some cities.
Griffith had several units touring the country visiting the big cities first and working their way down to smaller burgs in the sticks. In this way it remained in circulation for two or three years, sometimes returning for second engagements in some towns. Afterwards it remained available for renting for special screenings by private groups.
The cost of all of this was enormous, but so were the profits. The film played at the Liberty Theater in New York City for 44 weeks with tickets priced at a jaw dropping $2.20. Total revenue from the film is difficult to gauge because of the various agreements and splits with local theater owners and sometimes state distributors. Estimates vary widely. Epoch picture reported to its shareholders cumulative receipts of $4.8 million for all of 1917 which would have represented about 10% of total ticket sales. By 1919 that had grown to $5.2 million in world-wide revenue. Some estimate that first run box office sales ran to $50 million. And money continued to pour in.
The movie’s success changed the whole industry. Studios shifted production to feature films. And exhibiters began to build ever larger and more elaborate movie palaces to accommodate the films and the expanded audience for them, a trend only briefly interrupted by World War I. The powerful operators of theater chains became the owners of the most important Hollywood studios, all a direct result of the astonishing success of The Birth of a Nation.
The film also boosted the reputation of cinema as art rather than as low brow novelty entertainment. Newspapers added movie critics to their stables along with those covering the theater and fine performing arts including reporters like Carl Sandburg in Chicago. Performers like Lilian Gish, once semi-anonymous were catapulted to the glittering status of movie stars. Griffith himself became a lionized celebrity.
But there was a much darker side to all of this success. On the revived interest in the Reconstruction era night riders William Joseph Simmons inaugurated the so-called second Ku Klux Klan on Stone Mountain in Georgia where on Thanksgiving night 1915 15 men in robes burnt a cross. The new Klan grew slowly in its first five years but used showings of The Birth of a Nation as a major recruitment tool. Membership exploded in 1919 and after during the Red Scare and during the 1920’s the Klan was a major national organization with widespread membership not only in the old Confederacy but in many northern states like Indiana where Klan members actually captured the state government. Much of the continued revenue stream generated by The Birth of a Nation in that decade came from Klan sponsored private showings.
By the mid 1920's the revived Ku Klux Klan that The Birth of a Nation inspired was large and powerful enough to stage an impressive march in Washington D.C.
As for the NAACP, the nationwide campaign against the film failed in the sense that it prevented the racist movie from being shown. In fact their adamant opposition probably sold more tickets than it discouraged. But it was the first major effort by the organization that attracted wide-spread public attention. It rallied many Blacks, especially among the small, but influential urban professional middle classes to join the organization swelling membership and establishing new chapters. Likewise white liberals flocked to the organization and bridges were built to the more radical elements of the labor movement and the Socialist Party.
The NAACP continued to picket revivals of The Birth of a Nation like this demonstration in 1947.
Despite all of the accolades and profits the film earned, Griffith was still stung by the criticism. His answer was his next blockbuster Intolerance. Griffith’s many admirers for his undoubted creative innovation multiple contributions to the advancement of film as art have tended to become his apologists and often assert that Intolerance was made as a kind of atonement for the offences of The Birth of a Nation. Even as acute an observer as Roger Ebert, who usually had a nose for bullshit and a sharp political and moral consciousness fell into the trap of this interpretation—“... stung by criticisms that the second half of his masterpiece was racist in its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan and its brutal images of blacks, Griffith tried to make amends in Intolerance (1916), which criticized prejudice.”
But Griffith regretted nothing. Instead he felt he was the victim of intolerance by critics of his film. He reiterated this feeling of wounded self-righteousness in multiple interviews promoting his new film.
Although Intolerance is today best remembered for its stupefying grand scenes of the Fall of Babylon it intertwined four separate morality tales spanning millennia—the Babylonian tale, a Judean story picturing The Nazarene brought to crucifixion by intolerance, the French St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestant Huguenots, and a modern tale of a working class family destroyed by greed and busy-body do-gooders. In his interviews Griffith often compared his persecution to Christ’s.
The two newer stories are instructive. The blame for the persecution of the Huguenots was, of course, laid straight on the shoulders of the Catholic Church, the object of scorn and prejudice of many of the same folks that upheld Jim Crowe violence. Catholics also meant dirty immigrants to many. The newly reborn KKK made a point of adding Catholics as well as Jews to their list of enemies and indeed it was anti-Catholicism as much as anything that spurred its growth in the North in states like Indiana. The chief villain of the modern story is a liberal moral uplift society which precipitates a deadly labor strike when a capitalist cuts wages to give money to his sister’s charity. Later the same charity intervenes to take the beloved child of the innocent Dear One when the family falls on hard times. They stand for all of the white liberals who allied with the NAACP and especially do-gooders like pioneering social worker Jane Adams who had harshly criticized the film.
Star Mae Murray struggles to keep her baby from the clutches of The Uplifters--the busy-body liberal lady villains of the modern tale in D.W. Griffith's Intolerance.
Intolerance cost a record shattering $2.5 million to make—far more in relationship to the value of the dollar than the extravagant costs of the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton version of Cleopatra or the legendary fiasco Heaven’s Gate both of which nearly ruined and bankrupted their studios. Intolerance did the same. The film was not the complete box office failure of legend, but it failed to match the success of The Birth of a Nation and came nowhere near recouping its costs or paying off its investors. Griffith’s studio collapsed and was sold off at fire sale prices. He had financed most of the film himself with his earnings from The Birth of a Nation. He was personally ruined and never recovered financially. Also the failure made other studios reluctant to work with him.
He continued to make films, most notably the Lillian Gish vehicle Way Down East, but he had to relinquish his absolute control over his product and could never again attempt a grand scale epic. In 1919 he joined Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks to form independent United Artists. The company produced Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm successfully, but other films failed and by 1924 he left the company. He never had another hit but continued working sporadically into the early sound era. Abraham Lincoln starring Walter Huston as Abe and Una Merkle as Ann Ruttlage with a script partly written by poet Stephen Vincent Benét was a critical and popular success, but like The Birth of a Nation played fast and loose with the facts around the Civil War and was highly colored by Griffith’s pro-Confederate bias.
Griffith then made The Struggle, an alcoholism melodrama inspired by his own battles with the bottle for a minor studio financed by what was left of his own money. It flopped. Griffith never made another film.
He died on July 28, 1948 of a cerebral hemorrhage in the lobby of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles, where he lived alone. He spent his last years embittered and dissolute largely forgotten by Hollywood.
He remained, however, honored by film buffs. His greatest creation, The Birth of a Nation is high on any list of the greatest and most influential films of all time. Because it reflected the dominant pro Southern, anti-Reconstruction, and racist interpretation that was central to almost all American high school and college texts of the era, the themes of the film were little challenged until well into the 1950’s when historians like Eric Foner began a reassessment of the Reconstruction era in light of the Civil Right Movement. By the late ‘60’s the film was under full frontal attack by Black scholars and sympathetic critics.
Although it retains admirers on a technical level and several restorations have been made and are available on CD, screenings usually result in protests. In 1995 Turner Classic Movies (TCM) canceled a showing of a restored print during racial tensions over the O.J. Simpson case, although it has subsequently been shown.
None=the-less the film was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. The American Film Institute (AMI) lists it as #44 in the 100 Year….100 Movies list. Rotten Tomato, the film buff’s web page that compiles reviews gives The Birth of a Nation a rare 100% rating.
So there you have it—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Take your choice.
Today dozens of Klan sects are active and flourishing under Trump's wink-and-nod approval of white supremacist organizations. And many of them still use The Birth of a Nation as a recruiting tool.
By the way some of the dozens of KKK splinter sects that fester in the White supremacist swamp still use the film, or clips from it as a recruiting tool and on their web pages.