D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” plays as a strange and troubling artifact, a grainy, flickering work of artistic brilliance whose images are at once breathtaking and repugnant.
With sweeping shots and intimate close-ups, the 1915 silent film heralded the future of cinema, but its abhorrent depiction of blacks and celebration of the Ku Klux Klan reawakened virulent strains in the nation’s violent racial history.
The movie baffles, enthralls, angers and mystifies. It was the fusing of a thrilling new art form with primitive instincts. Its revolutionary cinematography, editing, narrative range, battle scenes and sprawling cast mesmerized audiences and inspired generations of filmmakers. It was also searing propaganda that revitalized the Klan and roused prejudices that echo today in police shootings of black men, outrage over affirmative action and furor over whether we must rise for the national anthem.
The work, which immediately became a disturbing touchstone and point of bitter division, was shown in President Woodrow Wilson’s White House. Wilson and Griffith were Southerners nostalgic for the antebellum era, but the movie, serene in pastoralism and shocking in message, struck deep national chords that have resounded for more than a century.
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Few film titles have evoked such passion. This was certainly on the mind of Nate Parker, who brazenly borrowed the name for his upcoming picture. His “The Birth of a Nation” is a repudiation of Griffith’s vision, a black director’s rendering of an 1831 slave rebellion that is likely to play into America’s conversation about race.
But the movie, which opens Friday, is shadowed by its own controversy: Parker’s acquittal in a rape trial involving an intoxicated white co-ed nearly two decades ago when he was a college wrestler. His black teammate Jean McGianni Celestin, who received a writing credit on the film, was convicted of sexual assault in the case. The verdict was overturned and prosecutors later dropped the matter.
Like Griffith’s epic, Parker’s movie is a visceral conjuring of history. But the director’s past and an off-camera rape in the film have complicated the marketing campaign. One can imagine what Griffith might have thought about the irony of a black filmmaker usurping his title only to be entangled by an incident that validates, at least for racists, Griffith’s premise and speaks to women’s rights, race and the capacity of art to articulate the times.
The Kentucky son of a former Confederate army colonel, Griffith was a master of images, a brash auteur who burst like a wizard from the nickelodeon era to give America its first blockbuster 24 years before a less abrasive version of racism in “Gone With the Wind.” His caricatures of blacks — as craven, simple-minded and savage — spurred protests in Philadelphia and Boston; Kansas, Ohio and other states refused to show it. The NAACP, founded in 1909, condemned it as “three miles of filth.”
The three-hour-plus film, which if released today would most likely be relegated to rabid corners of white supremacist websites, played to a nation still nursing the bruises from a conflict that for four years tore it apart. It traces the turbulence from the Civil War into Reconstruction. Told through the entwined lives of two families — the Stonemans of the North and the Camerons of the South — the story was adapted from the novel “The Clansman” by Thomas Dixon Jr. It depicted Northern abolitionists, carpetbaggers and freed slaves, many of whom were elected to state legislatures, as perilous to the storied if largely invented gentility of the antebellum South.
The anticipation around the movie was undeniable. Theater lines stretched for blocks and ticket prices, normally between a nickel and 15 cents, jumped to $2. At least 1 million tickets were sold in New York; by some estimates, “Birth” grossed as much as $60 million. The film has since been released on DVD but is rarely shown in public. In 2004, threats and protests forced the Silent Movie Theatre in L.A. to cancel a screening.
“Griffith advanced the art of film but did so by throwing African Americans under the bus,” said Thomas Allen Harris, a filmmaker whose 2014 documentary “Through a Lens Darkly” examines depictions of blacks in the media. “I remember seeing it as a student at the Bronx High School of Science. I think I was the only black person in the room. I experienced this kind of attack personally by the film. I felt anger and shame. I didn’t have the words to say, ‘Hey, what about this?' I felt the shame of silence. That film is seared in my mind.”
Similar to today’s restive and politically charged America, the country at the time of the movie’s premiere bristled with racial tensions, anti-immigrant fervor and looming dangers from abroad. The U.S. was two years away from entering a world war raging in Europe, and a backlash against a rising population of foreigners would lead Congress to limit immigration in 1917 and again in 1924. The great migration of blacks from the South to the North was just beginning, and anger and disillusionment over Reconstruction and Jim Crow were evident from old plantations to the White House.
Much of the film’s allure, at least among white audiences, was the glorification of the Old South, that world of tea, Spanish moss, buggy whips and summer dances. It was a populist paean to recapture certain vestiges of an America undergoing dramatic change, similar to Donald Trump vowing to “make America great again,” a phrase that has roused supporters in Appalachia, the South and the Rust Belt, where blue-collar workers feel threatened by immigration and economic globalization.
One of the most prominent champions of Griffith’s film was Wilson, who noted what he considered the unrest that broke out when blacks rose to power in the Reconstruction years.
“In the villages the Negroes were the office holders, men who knew nothing of the uses of authority, except its insolences,” wrote Wilson, whose racist attitudes have led to calls to remove his name from Princeton University’s School of Public & International Affairs. Wilson added that laws passed by Congress “put the white south under the heel of the black south” until at last “there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.”
Griffith liked Wilson’s rhetoric so much that he quoted it in “Birth of a Nation.” The gravity of those words played alongside disturbing stereotypes: blacks eating watermelon, slipping into fits of brutality and leering as sexual predators. As the film rolls on, the Klan, like knights and avengers, gallops onto the screen to the tune — played by a theater orchestra — of Richard Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyrie” to protect the South from “crazed negroes.”
After seeing the film, Wilson said: “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
Despite the movie’s vile portrayal of race relations, Griffith was a progressive in other ways. “He supported women and prisoners’ rights. He was for unions,” said Jonathan Kuntz, a film historian and lecturer at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. “But obviously, when it came to African Americans, it was another issue. I don’t think he could see his own racism. The most terrifying, horrible thing about the film is that it legitimized the Ku Klux Klan like a superhero origin story.”
While the picture’s racism was reprehensible, its art was unmistakable. Honing his talent for years on short, one-reel films, Griffith, a playwright and an actor, took on “The Birth of a Nation” like an artist with unending canvas. He mastered cross-cut editing, stoked tension, unspooled plot lines and perfected the close-up, including luminous shots of his star, Lillian Gish. He understood the thrall of great sweep and the poignancy of meticulous detail.
“To watch his work,” film critic James Agee wrote in an essay on Griffith, “is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever on a wheel; the emergence, coordination, and first eloquence of language; the birth of art; and to realize that this is all the work of one man.” He added in another passage that “for the first time the movies had a man who realized that, while a theater audience listened, a movie audience watched.”
When “The Birth of a Nation” opened, Griffith seemed at once a star of the new age and a man trapped in the lore of a misbegotten past. “He was a man with pioneering art form and a passion for the redemption of the fallen South. He wanted to rewrite that narrative as patriotic, strong and noble,” said Harris. “The country in 1915 was grappling with the question ‘Who are we?' Just like today.”