“The Birth of a Nation” (1915) is a Hollywood film based on the bestselling book, “The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan” (1905) by Thomas Dixon, Jr. It was the most successful silent film ever. It revolutionized film-making and led to the rebirth of the Klan.
Lilian Gish stars as a Pure White Woman saved by the Klan from a large mulatto who lusts after her.
D.W. Griffith directs as a film-making genius who has no idea that he is a racist.
The film burst upon a world of nickelodeons where for five cents ($0.05) you could watch short films, generally 10 to 15 minutes long, which were little more than stage plays acted in front of unmoving cameras.
“The Birth of a Nation” was over three hours long and cost an unheard of $2.00 (3.7 crowns) to see. Even if you account for its greater length, it was still three times more expensive.
- A new style of filming: cross-cuts, close-ups, establishing shots, flashbacks and a camera that moved! It had chase scenes and battle scenes.
- The full range of Black experience according to White people: Coons, Mammies, Uncle Toms, Black Brutes, Black Bucks and Tragic Mulattoes. It was the first film to show Black men as uncontrollably violent and dark-skinned Black women as fat, middle-aged and desexed. (The main Black characters were played by Whites in blackface.)
Most of this later became commonplace in Hollywood films.
The film shows the American Civil War, Reconstruction and the rise of the Klan through the eyes of two White families, one from the North, the other from the South.
The film takes President Woodrow Wilson’s view of Reconstruction as:
“a veritable overthrow of civilization … the white South under the heel of the black South … The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation … until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan.”
The film ends with the Klan restoring White rule with the blessing of White Jesus.
President Wilson, at the White House premiere, reportedly gave the film a standing ovation and said:
“It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so true.”
W.E.B. Du Bois said the film misrepresented Black men:
“either as an ignorant fool, a vicious rapist, a venal or unscrupulous politician or a faithful but doddering idiot.”
Jane Addams, in March 1915 when it opened in New York, said its picture of the Klan as noble was as misleading as its picture of Black men as “brutal and vicious”. She warned:
“As an appeal to race prejudice, it is full of danger.”
She was right: it led to riots, violence and the rebirth of the Klan, which in turn led to White Protestantist terrorism against Blacks, Asians, Jews, Catholics, socialists and communists. Klan cross burning comes from this film.
The NAACP called the film racist propaganda and led protests against it. Griffith, the director, defended it as free speech and quoted Wilson. In time it was banned in five states and 19 cities, but the Klan and the Museum of Modern Art continued to show it regularly.
– Abagond, 2015, 2016.
- Welcome to White History Month 2015
- Nadir of US race relations
- Jane Addams
- Oscar Micheaux – his film “Within Our Gates” (1920) was in answer to this film
- Madison Grant – came out with “The Passing of the Great Race” a year later. It became Hitler’s Bible.