“Birth of a Nation” Made America Great Again

The Birth of a Nation (1915) Directed by D.W. Griffith Shown: Walter Long (as Gus) surrounded by Ku Klux Klan members

“The Birth of a Nation” is back in the news, though not for reasons the original director (D.W. Griffith) could ever have fathomed. The 1915 silent film, an epic and a cinema classic, is famous for portraying the Ku Klux Klan as avenging heroes who defended the post-Civil War South from black rapists and killers. Its title has been “reclaimed” by African-American filmmaker Nate Parker for his fact-based story about a failed slave revolt in Virginia. Parker claims he “re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America.”

However, Griffith, were he alive today, would not be the only one upset by the headlines surrounding his title; Parker himself has lost control of the media narrative concerning “Birth of a Nation.” A decades-old rape allegation against Parker resurfaced during the publicity deluge about his movie. Parker was tried and acquitted, but the victim maintained his guilt and went on to commit suicide. Despite the film’s studio having hired a public relations expert to help Parker navigate this controversy, he has badly fumbled, awkwardly refusing to accept culpability or apologize.

The debate rages about whether Parker’s person can be separated from appreciation of his work, but it may be a moot point – the new “Birth of a Nation” is a mediocre movie. It has nothing to say (except that slavery is bad) and re-treads ground that has been much better explored elsewhere (as in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave” or Spielberg’s “Amistad”). Though it received a standing ovation when it first played at Sundance, it has been panned by many, including some black critics who have called it gratuitous, lazy, and “not a must-see, no matter what your color is.

If Parker’s “Birth of a Nation” is forgettable, then, it might be interesting to turn briefly to Griffith’s original. In the shadow of a possible Donald Trump presidency, American racists appear to be emboldened, increasingly vocal, and – in some cases – preparing for war. Given this climate, it is an interesting time to consider the legacy of this racist “masterpiece.”

Here, then, is a short list of “fun facts” about “Birth of a Nation.” Is it ironic, given the power of film as medium to humanize people and their plights, that one of Hollywood’s first major productions was racist propaganda? Maybe – but then again, in light of enduring debates about white-washing and media stereotypes of ethnic “others”, maybe not.

– From the beginning, D.W. Griffith’s film was used as a recruiting tool by the Ku Klux Klan. And why not? It’s original title, based on a novel of the same name, was “The Clansman,” and the film’s protagonists are Southerners who protect their fellow whites from the sexual advances and aggression of blacks after the Civil War. Many of the black characters in the film were actually played by white actors in blackface – they are portrayed as unintelligent, uncivilized, unhygienic and undeserving of an equal place in society with their noble and clean-living white compatriots.

– But “Birth of a Nation” was more than just a recruitment tool. Its massive popularity is actually credited with sparking a resurgence of the KKK, which had effectively ceased to exist as an organization since the 1880’s. In 1915 (the same year the film was released) the Klan was revived by William Joseph Simmons in Stone Mountain, Atlanta. He dubbed it “the Second Klan.” The film contributed to a surge in membership, and it was still being used as propaganda as late as the 1970’s.

– In some sense, the new members of the Klan who were inspired to join by the film could hardly have been called “extremists.” The movie had been endorsed by the president of the United States! “The Birth of a Nation” was the first film ever screened at the White House, under Woodrow Wilson (who was supposed to have said, “my only regret is that it is all so terribly true” and to have called it “history written in lightning.”)

– Ironically, the film may also have been essential in the development of one of America’s major anti-racist organizations. The nascent NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) tried to have the film banned for its depictions of black people. Though they were unsuccessful, there is an argument that the NAACP’s campaign to ban the film was actually crucial in helping them develop their networks and membership, which would lead to them becoming a major force in the civil rights protests to follow decades later. Their membership doubled in 1915, and would rise astronomically in the next five years. “Birth of a Nation,” then, created not only the modern KKK but also a key institution of modern civil rights.

– Art imitates life: Griffith’s film also directly inspired the new Klan’s outfit and practices. Cross burning, for instance, is featured in the film, but it had never been an actual practice of the Klan. D.W. Griffith just liked how it looked – and the Second Klan thought so too, copying the practice and doing it in real life. Cross burning would go on to be one of their most iconic symbols of terror. Similarly, the standardized white outfits worn by Klansmen today are modeled on the ones in the film.

– Despite the KKK being famously anti-Semitic, the film was actually funded in part by Jewish immigrant Louis B. Mayer (né Lazar Meir), whose enormous profits from the film were part of what allowed him to become a major Hollywood mogul. He would go on, of course, to found MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-MAYER). Mayer invested $5,000 and received a return of $50,000. The Klan believes to this day that Jews secretly manipulate world events and the media, including Hollywood – little do they know, their most iconic film was produced by a Jewish person!

– In part, the film was popular because it introduced a host of now-standard film-making techniques. Says Dick Lehr, author of a book about the film, in an interview for NPR: “He did things that hadn’t been done before in terms of close-up, zooming the camera in on faces, crosscutting in dramatic Civil War battle scenes, not just taking a single, static shot — all of which heightened the power, the impact, the drama, the emotion.” For this reason, the film is still studied in classrooms. But the film was also considered historically accurate, not least of all by Griffith himself. Reconstruction in the South was widely considered to have failed, and racist myths about black people and their culpability for that failure abounded.

– Finally, director D.W. Griffith was apparently deeply hurt by accusations that he was racist. He was so hurt that he titled his next film “Intolerance.” But “Intolerance” was not actually about intolerance of other races or ethnicities – that film was about those who were INTOLERANT of other people’s ideas, such as the people who had accused Griffith of being racist! Griffith never learned his lesson, and would go to his grave defending “the Birth of a Nation.”

  • Malcolm St-Pierre