How a Movie Birthed an Art Form (And Tarnished a Nation)

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A century ago this week, New Yorkers began lining up to watch The Birth of a Nation. Though the country was still more than a decade removed from the first talking picture, this black-and-white silent epic was apparently like Gone With the Wind, Star Wars and Avatar all rolled into one. Some theaters charged patrons $2 to see the thing (when movie tickets typically cost a dime), and it was the first movie to be screened at the White House.

To this day there is general agreement that it remains one of film history’s most innovative—and most shameful—artifacts, too great to be ignored but so terrible you wish you could. Writes Time’s Richard Corliss:

The most ambitious and powerful film of its time was also the most controversial, indeed notorious. The rhetorical fire it kindled makes recent arguments over the validity of such Oscar-nominated films as Selma and American Sniper seem like the most decorous debates in the Red Hat Society—for The Birth of a Nation not only was about the country’s history, it changed it, unarguably for the worse.

What made the film such an artistic milestone? Nearly everything about it. “Film scholars agree … that it is the single most important and key film of all time in American movie history,” filmsite.org tells us. Before Birth, most movie directors conceived of their work very much like stage productions. The camera was stationary and shot the action from a healthy distance. That all changed with the film’s director, D.W. Griffith. Corliss quotes Time’s critic James Agee from 1948:

Griffith broke up the pose. He rammed his camera into the middle of the action. He took closeups, crosscuts, angle shots and dissolves. His camera was alive, picking off shots; then he built the shots into sequences, the sequences into tense, swift narrative. For the first time the movies had a man who realized that, while a theater audience listened, a movie audience watched. “Above all … I am trying to make you see,” Griffith said.

The 1915 movie even featured a color sequence near the end—a harbinger of what wouldn’t become commonplace for another four decades.

Audiences rewarded Griffith’s innovation with oodles of cash. While Birth’s box office gross is now the subject of much debate, Corliss puts the number at $18 million, which translates to $1.8 billion today. According to Box Office Mojo, only Gone With the Wind (at $1.7 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars) would rival The Birth of a Nation.

And Birth made all that money despite the fact that many theaters refused to show the three-hour movie.

Birth-of-a-Nation-blog-bodyThe length wasn’t the problem. The story was. This was a deeply, horrifically racist story—a tale centered around the Civil War and Reconstruction. Its heroes were members of the Ku Klux Klan. Its villains, the South’s newly liberated African-Americans, portrayed as sex-crazed savages. Chicago, Denver, St. Louis and nine other cities refused to let the film open at all. And in many places where the movie was allowed to be shown—Boston and Philadelphia, most notably—the showings sparked race riots. Eight states eventually banned the film. The NAACP protested it vehemently. And In Lafayette, Ind., a man was so impacted by what he saw that he went out and murdered a black teen (according to PBS.org).

But perhaps the movie’s greatest impact on society was in helping to revive the then moribund KKK. The “Second Klan,” as it was called, was founded in Georgia the same year Birth was released, and it consciously imported the costuming portrayed in the film, according to PBS. It’s estimated that, by 1921, 4 to 5 million men were members of the Klan—about 15% of the population. And while it’s impossible to know how many people died at the hands of the KKK, some estimate that it’s in the thousands. Allegedly, the Klan used the film as a recruitment tool as late as the 1970s.

And even today, the film’s volatile mixture of brilliance and bigotry continue to make news. In 1999, the Director’s Guild of America decided to retire its long-standing D.W. Griffith award (given for outstanding career achievement) because of Griffith’s role in promoting “intolerable racial stereotypes.”

Odd, isn’t it, how a movie that has a 100% “freshness” rating on Rotten Tomatoes can also be so toxic, isn’t it?

Or maybe not so odd.

There’s nothing in the mainstream movie world truly comparable these days to Birth of a Nation—something so obviously brilliant and so obviously shameful and so amazingly popular. But the dichotomy that film represents is nevertheless familiar to us all. Many movies today may be artistic achievements but filled with problematic content. And it’s sometimes hard to know whether to praise these things or throw them in the trash.

I guess that’s part of why we do what we do here at Plugged In. We respect the art we see. And yet we know that great art is inherently persuasive—just as The Birth of a Nation was. We know that well-constructed movies can inspire us … and sometimes in deeply unhealthy ways. We do our best to point out what a film does well and where it goes wrong, in regards to both content and message. And we remind you that films, for better or worse, are one of our culture’s most powerful influencers. What we see and hear in them matters.

Some people take issue with that, of course. “Lighten up,” they might say. “It’s just a movie.” But when you look at The Birth of a Nation, you can see that “just a movie” can make a huge impact … for both better and worse.

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

SJamison More than 1 year ago
Previous comment failed to post for some reason.  The life of Thomas Dixon, the author of "The Clansman" which was turned into "Birth of a Nation" is a fascinating one--before he became a best selling novelist he was a politician and a minister in the Southern Baptist denomination, among other things.  And he himself, despite his obvious prejudices,  didn't approve of the revived KKK.
AlMenconi More than 1 year ago
Paul.  Excellent insight and conclusion on America's first "smash hit movie."  I like reading Plugged In because you guys give the entertainment choices a fair evaluation on artistic achievement while viewing from a biblical perspective.  You walk a fine line. 
SJamison More than 1 year ago
Thomas Dixon, Jr. (the author of "The Clansman", which was the basis for "Birth of a Nation", had a fascinating life--including a period as a minister in the Southern Baptist denomination.  And bigot though he was, even he disapproved of the Klan revival.