February 8, 1915: Birth of a Nation Debuts in Los Angeles

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The film Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece, was  controversial at its release and remains so.  At three hours the film was a pioneering effort using then cutting age technology to produce a movie that stunned viewers with its cinematic quality, something that no one had ever seen before.  At the same time the film, based on the pro-Ku Klux Klan novel the Clansman by Thomas Dixon, a friend of President Woodrow Wilson, drew outrage from Grand Army of the Republic Union veterans and black groups with its depiction of the Klan as noble heroes attempting to fight against evil Unionists and its depiction of blacks as little better than beasts who walked erect.  Race riots broke out in cities where the film was shown.  President Wilson viewed the film in the White House and was reported to have said, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true”.  The White House denied the remark, and in the wake of continuing protests, Wilson eventually condemned the “unfortunate production”.  The film used quotes from Wilson’s scholarly works to buttress its negative depiction of Reconstruction and its positive depiction of the Klan.  Considering the fact that Wilson imposed segregation on the Civil Service it is difficult to discern what he found to be “unfortunate” about the film.

The film was a smash hit earning twenty million dollars in current dollars.  Griffith, stung by criticisms of his film, directed the film Intolerance in 1916, which condemned religious prejudice, although it did not touch on racial prejudice.

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3 Comments

  1. I have seen “Intolerance,” or at least most of it. It is a brilliant piece of film-making and the origin of the “cast of thousands.” Some of the shots still astound.

    It does a beautiful job of condemning religious prejudice, feeding into a Protestant audience’s feelings with a grim depiction of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and then throwing a brutal change-up: the next chapter features an innocent Catholic man being framed for a crime and sentenced to execution.

    If only he could have done something with respect to the hatred depicted in the also-brilliant but hellishly racist “Birth,” which is no less than grotesque in parts.
    “Intolerance” is still worth a watch, despite its predecessor.

    Oh, and Wilson turns my stomach. If only Teddy had won in 1912…

  2. DW Griffiths’ movie “Birth of a Nation”: “with its depiction of the Klan as noble heroes attempting to fight against evil Unionists.”

    Then, as now, Hollywood was controlled by the Demonrats: then, the military wing of the Demonrat party was the KKK; now it is “Occupy!”, BLM, and “Black Rock.”

    How little has changed.

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