D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation

University of Rochester, May 1998

“This picture is too big a thing to be bothered by such a gnat’s sting of criticism,” D.W. Griffith once predicted of his epic film, The Birth of a Nation.[1] Nonetheless, a chorus of denunciation roared immediately following the film’s premier at New York City’s Liberty Theater in March 1915. “To present the members of the [black] race as women-chasers and foul fiends is a cruel distortion of history,” complained the New York Globe. “To make a few dirty dollars men are willing to pander to depraved tastes and to foment a race antipathy that is the most sinister and dangerous feature of American life.”[2] A month later, between four and five thousand demonstrators stalked Boston’s Tremont Theater, whereupon a committee arranged by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) publicly protested “the proposition that the pictured slander and disparagement of a minority race shall make licensed amusement for the rest of the people.” “This is but a step from that brutal tyranny when many were slaughtered to make a Roman holiday.”[3] Both the mayor of Boston and the governor of Massachusetts promised to seek prohibitive legislation against the film, and similar episodes blighted openings across much of the nation.

Although The Birth of a Nation suffered much more than a “gnat’s sting” of negative publicity, Griffith was assuredly correct to suggest that his picture would become a “big thing.” The production—which grossed an unprecedented $18 million and quickly became the most widely seen motion picture in American history—furnished a foundation for early efforts to create a mass form of entertainment in the United States. That is, in revealing the immense profitability of film-making and introducing or honing dozens of modern cinematic techniques, the film was singularly successful in defining the motion-picture business as a vehicle for popular amusement. Meanwhile, it established Griffith as the foremost movie director in the world. James Agee, in the wake of Griffith’s death in 1948, wrote that he had “achieved what no other known man has ever achieved. To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination, and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all done by one man.” Griffith, insisted Agee, was “an American Hugo.”[4]

This dual constitution—Griffith the genius and artist, Griffith the menacing racist—has raised difficult questions. Can one praise the film’s cinematic achievements without endorsing, implicitly, its racist message? That is, should interpreters of cultural artifacts neatly separate form and content?[5] By recovering the historical contexts from which The Birth of a Nation emerged in 1915, the remainder of this brief essay will suggest—in extremely broad outline—that the film must be examined without such divisions. For, at least in this case, both form and content addressed a similar imperative: the symbolic unification of America.

Griffith cleaved the plot of The Birth of a Nation into two major halves. The prologue implies that the racial turmoil of mid-nineteenth-century America originated with seventeenth-century New England slave traders (the ancestors, the film suggests, of Northern abolitionists.) Now that Griffith has confronted viewers with a potential conflict, the opening scene of the film, the first half of the narrative, retreats to a bucolic panorama of plantation life in the South, and holds out the promise of harmony. This hope, however, is quickly shattered by war between North and South—caused in the first place by zealous Northern abolitionists.

The second part contains the central action of the film. Griffith argues that, upon the assassination of a benevolent President Lincoln, malevolent Republicans in Congress encouraged anarchy in the defeated South. The enfranchisement of former slaves by the congressional radicals generated assaults on Southern traditions of separatism, and threatened to subject white women to the whims of feral, lusty blacks. The formation of the Ku Klux Klan by virtuous white men, however, reestablished order and rescued the South from black licentiousness. Heroic Klansmen restored order in the streets, in homes, and among families, and induced a new nation by way of overtly articulated racial hierarchies. Indeed, one critic has remarked that the film depicted African Americans as “subhuman, barbarous, uncultured, bestial, desirous of raping White women, violent, dictatorial, clownish, and without civilizing potential.”[6]

Delivered through the Cameron and Stoneman families, the rendering of Reconstruction and its aftermath by The Birth of a Nation differs significantly from the view proffered by today’s historians. Griffith’s narrative, however, drew heavily from prevailing, respectable scholarship about the period. Most immediately, the film owed its plot to Thomas Dixon’s 1905 novel, The Clansmen. Dixon, a notoriously incorrigible racist, had long lamented “the bold attempt of Thaddeus Stevens to Africanize ten great states of the American Union,” and meant his novel as an attack against Republican rule in the South.[7] In Woodrow Wilson’s History of the American People, and William Dunning’s Reconstruction, Griffith discovered a similar interpretation of the period. Each of these works, operating under racist assumptions, emphasized white defeat by marauding blacks and unscrupulous Northern scalawags, a view early embedded in Griffith’s flawed historical imagination by his father, a Civil War veteran. The notion of White racial superiority inflected each of these portraits.

The Dunning-Dixon-Wilson school of interpretation made familiar and plausible Griffith’s effort to relieve decades-old sectional tensions by fixing blame for the turmoil of Reconstruction on radical whites, but especially on inferior blacks. White Northerners and Southerners, that is, could agree to set aside differences between them, and instead to adopt a new, racialized historical synthesis offered so powerfully by Griffith. Lincoln, in this incarnation, becomes a compassionate leader who sympathized with the Southern cause, one who considered deporting freed slaves back to Africa—a scene describing this was cut from the final version of the film. In one sense, the effect of this historical “romance” is to burden black men of 1915 with the sacrifices made by white Southerners who fought in the Civil War.

In a larger sense, the film suggests that with black men tamed and subordinated, Americans can rest at peace and anticipate future progress. The Civil War and Reconstruction, in Griffith’s rendering, are now only minor obstacles in a longer, more sanguine story of redemption and progress. Griffith and his partners highlighted the film’s didactic qualities, and confessed that, ultimately, they aspired to bring together whites across the nation in common agreement about their past. The production, wrote Thomas Dixon, “reunites in common sympathy and love all sections of our country” and “teaches our boys the history of our nation in a way that makes them know the priceless inheritance our fathers gave us through the sacrifice of Civil War and Reconstruction.”[8]

If the substance of Griffith’s film attempts to relieve sectional tensions and to redeem faith in progress, the form of The Birth of a Nation also works to achieve these ends. That is, Griffith employed the technical achievements of the production to secure a consensus among viewers about the film’s ideological message. Nearly three hours long—twice the length of most feature films at that time—the movie grandly suggested the possibility that films could accomplish the emotional manipulation of publics. Griffith, for instance, exploited the orchestral score far better than any other previous director. He made use of advertising to an unprecedented degree. And he instituted “cross-cutting” and narrative sequencing to elicit not reasoned, deliberative responses from viewers, but rather passionate, emotional reactions. “Every little series of pictures, continuing from four to fifteen seconds, symbolizes a sentiment, a passion, or an emotion,” wrote the New York Times, praising Griffith’s cross-cutting. “Each successive series, similar yet different, carries the emotion to the next higher power, till at last, when both of the parallel emotions have attained the nth power, so to speak, they meet in the final swift shock of victory and defeat.”[9]

With rich imagery, artistry, and uniquely constructed framing devices that aimed to evoke emotionalism, Griffith used the technical apparatus of modern film-making to underscore the romanticism of the plot. “The Birth of a Nation is the awakener of every feeling,” attested one southern newspaper. “Your heart pulses with patriotism when those boys in grey march to battle with banners whipping and the band playing ‘Dixie’; you are wrung with compassion for the mother and her girls desolate at home; you are shocked by the clamor of mighty armies flung hell bent into conflict; your throat chokes for a boy who dies with a smile on his face.”[10] By pursuing emotional devices of persuasion, Griffith also implicitly acknowledged the irrationalism of the racist consensus professed by the film.

Both the form and the substance of The Birth of a Nation, then, worked together to mask conflict and doubt in an America busily assimilating immigrants, reimagining techniques of persuasion, redrawing color lines, and attempting to devise a national, unified culture that would tread confidently on the world stage. Griffith offered moviegoers dazzling “special effects” and, to white viewers, at least, ideological purchase on matters of racial hierarchy. The film was among the first moving pictures to earn a mass audience, and the first to get a showing at the White House. That Woodrow Wilson, host to Griffith’s epic, had recently resegregated the White House comes as no great surprise in this context.

[1]      Quoted in Fred Silva, ed., Focus on The Birth of a Nation (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1971), 31.

[2]      Quoted in Silva, Focus, 74, 75.

[3]      Quoted in Herbert Aptheker, ed., A Documentary History of The Negro People in the United States, 1910–1932 (NewYork: Citadel Press, 1993), 88. On the NAACP’s efforts to create a countervailing view, see Thomas Cripps, “The Birth of a RaceCompany: An Early Stride Toward a Black Cinema,” Journal of Negro History 59 (January 1974): 30-7.

[4]      Quoted in Silva, Focus, 16.

[5]      These issues remain pertinent for historians and film scholars. As recently as 1994, in fact, the Library of Congress refused to include Griffith’s production in an exhibit concerning the history of American film. See “Our Troubling Birth Rite,” Village Voice (3 November 1994): 2-4.

[6]      Bruce M. Tyler, “Racist Art and Politics at the Turn of the Century,” Journal of Ethnic Studies 15 (Winter 1988): 85.

[7]      Quoted in Robert Lang, “The Birth of a Nation: History, Ideology, Narrative Form,” in Robert Lang, ed., The Birth of a Nation (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 7.

[8]      Quoted in Silva, Focus, 75. As Michael Rogin has argued elsewhere, the complex plot of The Birth of a Nation attempts to relieve a panoply of tensions and ambiguities plaguing American political culture in the early century, and sectionalism is only the most obvious. See Michael Rogin, ‘“The Sword Became a Flashing Vision’: D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation,”in Lang, The Birth of a Nation, 250-93.

[9]      Quoted in Silva, Focus, 167.

[10]    Quoted in Silva, Focus, 30.