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The 100th Anniversary Funeral for "The Birth of a Nation"

Culture Watch
tags: racism, Civil War, birth of a nation



Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.


Did you go to the movies this year to see the restored and re-mastered copy of the 1915 history film The Birth of a Nation, celebrating  its 100th anniversary? Did you see the CNN tribute to the stars of the film? Did you see the prices they obtained for costumes worn in the film at the Sotheby’s auction? The exhibit on Birth at the Smithsonian? The commemorative coins and stamps? The statue of the writer of Birth on the mall in Washington, D.C.? President Obama’s salute to the film on its anniversary at the White House?

You missed all of that, hey?

You missed it, and everybody missed it, because The Birth of a Nation was the most savage, racist, disgusting movie ever made in this country and on its esteemed 100th birthday all anybody wants to do with Birth is stage a funeral for it.

It was one of the most financially successful films of all time, earning, in today’s money, over one billion dollars. Its director, D.W. Griffith, was hailed for producing the first three hour movie and a drama filled with technological gimmicks, camera wonders and crowd scenes that would not be rivaled for generations. It was based on a successful New York play that was based on a best-selling book.

It was an enormous success but, at the same time, dreadful racist tripe.

The recent murders of nine African-Americans in the Charleston church serve as a reminder that Birth of a Nation was an insult to film, South Carolinians (the film was set in that state) and all Americans.

In the movie, made to honor the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War in 1915, two sets of brothers, one from Pennsylvania in the north and one from Piedmont, South Carolina, in the South, go to war against each other, leaving their loved ones behind. During the war, a black regiment of Union troops, looking like savages, occupies Piedmont and wreaks havoc. They shoot down unarmed civilians, burn homes and, it is strongly suggested, rape white women. The whole region is under the domination of the black troops, the devils unleashed by Abraham Lincoln. Atrocity follows atrocity   When the war ends, black troops continue to occupy Piedmont and they welcome Silas Lynch, the African-American protogee of the U.S. Speaker of the House, who promptly falls in love with a local white woman and tries to force himself on her.  The black troops continue to demean all and constantly push white civilians off sidewalks.  Blacks are allowed to vote and whites are not and the Afro Americans elect a state legislature full of ignorant men who vote while gnawing on chicken legs at their desks. White women jump off cliffs to avoid the black men.

 Is there no one to save the South? There is – the Ku Klux Klan. The white robed and hooded Klansmen, led by one of the southern brothers, charges into town and forces the black devils out. Order is restored and happiness prevails.

The 1915 movie was an overtly racist film that divided backs and whites for generations, helped to bring on even harsher Jim Crow laws and barred just about all black actors from Hollywood films for over twenty years.  The black women in the film are oversexed and the white women are scared to death of the black men. The blacks are, as shown in the film, beasts in the jungle. Why were they that way? Lincoln gave them all freedom too soon, that’s why. What would these blacks do now, in 1915, when the movie opened? If not controlled – if they did not know their place – they would destroy America.

Just about everything presented in Birth was historically wrong.  Blacks never controlled the entire state legislatures of any southern state. No black soldiers were ever convicted of raping a white woman. In fact, to avoid racial trouble, the army moved all of its black soldiers out of the southern states during reconstruction. The only troops that would have been in Piedmont would have been white.

Did all this keep audiences away from theaters where the move was playing? Of couse not. The publicists for the movie told everybody it was true history carefully researched, and people believed them. Why? Because America, in 1915 was still a racist country and most people in 1915 had that same dim view of blacks that Griffith showed on the screen.

Birth set box office records wherever it traveled. Birth trains carried the movie and hundreds of folding chairs to railroad towns throughout the country and tickets that sold for about $20 in today’s money were snapped up as soon as they were offered. Sorority girls at the University of Chicago held Birth parties and dressed up in KKK costumes. Department stores sold KKK hats in their clothing sections. Movie studio workers dressed up as KKK members rode through cities to promote the film when it opened there.

The movie set records throughout the South, as its producers expected, but did even better in the North, playing at New York’s Liberty theater for 48 weeks and at some other northern theaters for a year. One of its distributors. Louis B. Mayer, made so much money as the New England franchise holder that he started MGM studios with the profits.

Critics loved it. Dorothea Dix wrote in the New York Journal  that “Here is a war play the lie of which has never been presented on any stage before…that worked the audience into a perfect frenzy.”

Some critics embraced Griffith’s “new” U.S. history. Steve Talbot, of the Lincolnman, in Nebraska, wrote “Griffith’s masterpiece is the most thrilling exposition of the Reconstruction of the South and a half dozen of his colored characters are portrayed as possessing all the virtues of honesty, loyalty and devotion to their benefactors, which history teachers say was part of the southern Negro’s nature.”

Some critics even urged that school children be forced to see it. “Children must be sent to see this masterpiece. Any parent who neglects this advice is committing an educational offense, for no film has ever produced more educational points than Griffith’s latest achievement,” wrote a critic for a Hearst newspaper.”

Oh, some white critics did not like it, but not many. None of the African American newspaper critics liked it, but they represented a small percentage of the press.

By the late 1930s, protest groups were starting to apply enough pressure on local movie managers to have it shut down. By the 1950s, the mainstream press started to denounce the movie. Max Lerner wrote in the New York Post in 1950 that it was “a classic of racist passions, rape and lynch law.”

By the 1970s, riots started to accompany any public showings of the movie. Today it is usually only shown as a lesson to film classes at Universities and in some high schools.

So happy 100th to Birth of a Nation. What to do with you now? Bury you.



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