On Feb. 8 1915, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation premiered in American theaters. The film depicted the Civil War, its aftermath and Reconstruction. Though billed as “history” by its director, Birth of a Nation instead offered up an alternate past. In this retelling of historical events, Reconstruction was discriminatory towards whites, African-Americans were oppressive tyrants; and the film’s heroes were the Ku Klux Klan, chivalrous protectors of civilization and white womanhood. This was a purely speculative tale, but one that was supported by popular racial ideologies, Southern nostalgia, academic schools of thought, and even the writings of a U.S. president. Hailed as a “masterpiece,” Birth of a Nation revolutionized film making as we know it. For white America, it offered a chance at reconciliation between a white North and a white South. For African-Americans everywhere, however, it was a terrorizing mythology, that posed existential dangers if not confronted directly.
A young white girl flees a black figure—Gus the Renegade, a former slave turned Union soldier. He is a perverse product of the “vicious doctrines spread by the carpetbaggers” and other agents of emancipation. Hunched over and skulking, his sullen look and hungry gaze speak to his carnal intent. In desperation, his white victim flings herself over the precipice of a cliff—preferring the “opal gates of death” to being ravished by this black brute.
When white audiences in 1915 viewed this scene in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation they cried out in anger, fear or sadness. The new medium was so convincing that in one report, gunfire erupted inside a Florida theater when someone took aim at Gus on the screen–hoping to save the white damsel from her black attacker. Throughout Griffith’s film, hordes of blacks (some actual black actors, many others whites in black face), former slaves “drunk with wine and power,” terrorize white South Carolinians. The scheming mulatto Silas Lynch (another white man in black face), the product of misguided abolitionists and Radical Republicans, attempts to forcibly marry a gagged and imprisoned white woman, at one point lifting and carrying her across his shoulders.
The actress who played the role, Lillian Gish, later recounted Griffith’s fascination with the imagery: “While we were rehearsing the scene where the colored man picks up the Northern girl, gorilla fashion, my hair, which was very blonde, fell far below my waist, and Griffith seeing the contrast in the two figures, assigned me to play Elsie Stoneman.” Yes, she said “gorilla fashion.” In the end, only a daring horseback charge of the Ku Klux Klan, described in the film as “the organization that saved the South from the anarchy of black rule,” manages to set things right. White supremacy—white masculine supremacy—is reestablished over a New South with the hierarchies of race that had guided the Old South firmly back in place.
In 1915, D.W. Griffith’s film, originally called The Clansman, informed much of America on slavery and the supposed effects of emancipation—an act of selective memory, and amnesia, that attempted to project a nostalgic past into a troublesome present.
“They don’t sing as they used to,” a white Atlanta woman in 1890 lamented of local blacks. “Every year, it seems to me, they have been losing more and more of their carefree good humor….they have grown so glum and serious that I’m free to say I’m scared of them!”
Around the turn of the century, such fears were common as white Southerners confronted a new generation of blacks born after the Civil War. Long before the “New Negro” of the Harlem Renaissance, the self-constructed “post-emancipation Negro” of the American South was a more vocal, assertive and less genial persona—one that both perplexed and frightened many whites. The solution for dealing with this troubling present was to look to the past, where white Southerners could still find their desired notions of blackness toiling happily on the slave plantations of their collective memories.
There was Sambo, infantile and childlike in his antics; the Buck, physically strong in labor, but loyal; the Uncle, gentle, faithful and wholly dependent on his master; and, of course, Mammy, the equally loyal maternal slave, de-sexed of womanhood and living to dote on her white charges. Each served as the differentiated “other” against which white Southern ideals had long been constructed; with the humiliating defeat of the Confederacy, they became especially important as battles were waged for how the slave past, and Southern antebellum civilization with it, would be remembered–the so-called Lost Cause.
By the late nineteenth century the faithful “Old Negro” had become a staple of Southern reminiscence on the Lost Cause. In literature, theatrical performances, orations and everyday observation, white Southerners conducted daily rituals to his memory. Held up in stark contrast was the emerging generation of young blacks, “newfangled Niggers” who were “lazy and thriftless,” much too “serious, self-conscious” or “sullen” and “insolent,” seeming to “retrograde towards barbarism.” Their presence not only undermined rosy memories of the slave past, but left whiteness with no “other” against which to be defined. It was this necessitated distinction which eventually transferred to the early cinematic screen, images long popularized by the live stage black face theatrical minstrel performances of pioneered by the self-described “Ethiopian Delineator” Thomas Dartmouth Rice in the mid-nineteenth century.
Before Birth of a Nation there was Confederate Spy (1910). In this silent film the main character Uncle Daniel is a faithful slave who turns spy for the Confederacy. Sacrificing his life before a Northern firing squad, he dies content, knowing that he “did it for massa’s sake.” In the aptly named follow-up For Massa’s Sake (1911) the faithful Uncle Joe volunteers to be sold back into slavery (seriously) to pay off his master’s debts. Often portrayed by white men in black face, a type of double-performance, these depictions placed blackness precisely where white Southerners felt it belonged—in the eternal service of white society. So important were these choreographed performances of subordination, they were policed for any deviation. When the film The Soldiers Ring (1911) depicted a slave who refused to wait on a Southern officer, white viewers griped that the black character “had shown an intolerably ‘stiff unwillingness in placing chairs for the Confederate generals.”
No cinematic production would so sharply define these distinctions than D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. The film was based on writer Thomas Dixon’s Lost Cause novels The Clansman and The Leopard’s Spots, both of which had become popular plays. The movie adaptation tells the story of the Old South, the Civil War, Reconstruction and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan–in truly mythic form, with “Negrophobia” (the anti-blackness of its day) as its central feature.
In the film two white families, the Northern Stonemans and the Southern Camerons, are torn apart by the Civil War–losing sons in the conflict. The true battle however comes after the war, as Reconstruction (a veritable plague in the film’s perspective) is visited upon the defeated South. The ever loyal Uncle and Mammy are prominently portrayed by white men in black face, remaining faithful to their owners through the tumultuous years. In contrast to them are the other slaves: former obedient toilers, spoiled with freedom, who have turned haughty, violent and—worse still—oversexed.
These blacks, many of them Union soldiers, roam the streets jostling whites off sidewalks, scowling and jeering at their former masters. Among them is still a bit of the Sambo, who trying to rise above his station only manages to achieve absurdity—reflected by a scene of bumbling black Reconstruction legislators eating chicken, swiggin whiskey and propping up their bare feet on the desks of the statehouse. But it is the old field hand Buck, reconfigured to fit white imaginings on the new generation of self-assertive blackness, who is most out of control. This is best illustrated by the brooding and near bestial Gus, a black sexual predator who sends the aforementioned young white woman leaping to her death to escape her ravisher. Closely aligned to Gus is the mulatto leader of the blacks Silas Lynch, who throughout the film can barely conceal his scheming lust for white womanhood.
Mimicking contemporary Southern discourse, Birth of a Nation plays these black caricatures against each other. The old faithful Uncle is flogged by younger insolent Bucks, while Mammy’s polar opposite is performed as Lydia—a villainous mulatto Jezebel who uses her sexuality to gain power over white men. It is because of these outrages, the film asserts, that the Ku Klux Klan is born–exacting justice against the would-be rapist Gus (in the form of a lynching), arriving to save the day and establishing some semblance of the old order over the anarchy of the blacks.
From beginning to end, Birth of a Nation is a fantastical revisionist version of historical events. Reconstruction allowed blacks to attain office, partly because white Southerners had participated in the ultimate act of treason–sparking a war that resulted in the deaths of well over half a million Americans. Blacks served on school boards, as postmaster generals, in the Freedman’s Bureau, and as local and federal legislators. These elected black officials often proved quite capable and up to the task, passing bills that helped rebuild the South’s shattered infrastructure. Reconstruction did not “fail,” as had become part of the Lost Cause propaganda, from popular novels to the then thriving and influential Dunning School. Rather it was killed–by obstinate white Southerners who resisted it fiercely and a white North that eventually became apathetic. Black Union soldiers occupying once rebellious territory maintained the peace, and were often the ones under attack as seen in the murderous anti-black 1866 Memphis Riots–not vice versa.
And of course, the Ku Klux Klan was not formed by desperate whites after witnessing “bad” black behavior as purported in the film. The Klan was formed in December 1865–nine months after the end of the Civil War by bitter former Confederate soldiers determined to carry on their “cause” and subvert black progress through intimidation and terrorism. By rewriting the history of the Klan, the film attempts to use rampaging “subhuman and feral” blackness as absolution for the repressive apartheid Jim Crow laws and ritualized violence that had come to mark Southern society. It was as well an olive branch, what historian David Blight calls the “reconciliation” of Northern and Southern whites, who could finally bury the “tragedy” of the Civil War in their mutual anti-blackness. Quite fitting, the final battle against black hordes in the film is fought by both former white Union and Confederate soldiers. Birth of a Nation may tell its audiences very little about slavery or Reconstruction, but it opens quite a window into race relations in 1915.
The film itself was a resounding success. Though numbers vary, it grossed more than any other film of its day–selling out performances in cities across the United States. Birth of a Nation was also groundbreaking in the medium of film, using both storytelling and cinematography unseen in previous silent works. It was epic both in scope and production, laying the path for films to come and modern cinema as we know it. In 1992, the Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the National Film Registry. The American Film Institute (AFI) similarly lists Birth of a Nation in its 100 “Greatest American Films.” It is hard to find film critics and historians who do not use words like “masterpiece”to describe the film, alongside “vile” or “racist.” In this way, Birth of a Nation remains with us, in the very roots and bones of our popular culture.
To be clear, as a racial myth Birth of a Nation was a dangerous bit of visual fiction for black lives and bodies. Whites left the film often incensed, sometimes looking for blacks to harass. And in an era already immersed in deadly anti-black race riots and lynchings, the movie was both inciting and served as a rationale. In Lafayette, Indiana, a white movie goer left a Birth of a Nation screening so riled up he shot a black teenage boy to death. How many similar attacks upon blacks occurred directly because of the film is unknown–and disputed. But the activist W.E.B. DuBois would later insist that mob murders against blacks had increased significantly during 1915, including acts of lynching.
In fact, Birth of a Nation’s greatest success was the revival of the group it hailed as heroes–the Ku Klux Klan. By 1915 the Klan had become almost dormant in many areas, having already successfully won the battle of reestablishing white control over the New South. In the numerous racial murders and lynchings that occurred in the early 20th century, white perpetrators didn’t bother to hide their faces or wear masks. Black death, immolation and dismemberment had become both ritual and spectacle–to be advertised as a public event to be attended by the masses.
Birth of a Nation helped the Klan make a spectacular comeback. In 1915 what became known as the “Second Klan” was founded by William Joseph Simmons at Stone Mountain near Atlanta, Georgia. Simmons was inspired to recreate the Klan after seeing its depiction in Birth of a Nation. Members were solicited next to advertisements of the film and encouraged to attend its premiere. At theaters, vendors sold klan hats, robes and souvenirs (the way one would hawk a modern action figure) and the movie became a popular recruiting tool. By 1920, just five years after Birth of a Nation first premiered, the once almost non-existent Klan now claimed a staggering 4.5 million members across the United States. This Klan ran (at times successfully) for public office and even patterned themselves on rituals learned in Birth of a Nation. In the 1920s the Klan was so popular they amassed large numbers to march on Washington DC. There were even sanctioned Klan chapters in the United States Navy.
None of this stopped the film from becoming part of the American mainstream. D.W. Griffith, who balked at any claim that his movie was racist (he claimed it was just factual history), had a private screening at the White House for President Woodrow Wilson–who offered his praise. Not surprising, as Wilson’s own History of the American People (1901) served as both inspiration for Griffith and is actually quoted in the film:
Adventurers swarmed out of the North, as much the enemies of one race as of the other, to cozen, beguile and use the negroes. The white men were aroused by a mere instinct of self-preservation — until at last there sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country–Woodrow Wilson.
After its success at the White House, Griffith had Birth of a Nation screened a second time for Supreme Court justices and 90 members of Congress.
African-Americans, however, had a different take on this alternate working of history. They in contrast saw the film as dangerous propaganda and worked strongly against it. The NAACP, then only 6 years old, deplored the film as “an effort to mislead the people of this country…and to excite a strong feeling against the coloured people, already suffering everywhere from race prejudice.” Even the accommodationist Booker T. Washington labeled the film “the most dangerous thing (to have) ever happened to the advance and improvement of the couloured people.”
Across the country the NAACP, black groups and white liberal allies protested against a film they termed a “blight” or “loathsome” and “abhorrent.” There were picket lines and calls for it to be banned from cities, lest it spark violence and anti-black riots from white moviegoers. Sometimes this protest became both direct and militant. At a Birth of a Nation premiere in Boston, local blacks bought tickets and began pelting the screen with eggs during the film when klansmen appeared. Others ignited stink bombs to drive patrons from the theater. After the film, many blacks refused to leave and continued their protests. Police were called in to remove them. When other white supporters of the film jumped into the fray, it became an all out brawl. 260 officers were deployed to the suppress what became termed a “riot.”
D.W. Griffith reacted with both shock and outrage that his movie would be condemned as racist. In 1916 he responded to his critics’ attempts at censorship with a treatise called The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America, painting himself as the victim of black race fanatics.
However, there would be no more Birth of a Nation type films in America. There were numerous reasons Hollywood pictures did not often repeat the more extreme and violent demeaning caricatures in later antebellum films. Part was owed to the numerous protests that accompanied Griffith’s film wherever it was released. Despite its immense popularity in some cities it was banned altogether, where authorities feared it might incite unrest. Eager to avoid such controversy, movie makers dispensed with brutish Bucks or Jezebels and instead kept the harmless Sambo and the kind-hearted Uncle and Mammy.
This served a secondary purpose, as it allowed the Old South to be displayed without the need to explain any troubling racial animosities. Thus though the campaigns against the movie tempered its reception, Birth of a Nation’s influence remained in American cinema. By establishing a causal relationship between freedom, and “insolent” or “unfaithful” blacks of Reconstruction, Birth of a Nation sanitized the Old South to fit the fantasies of white nostalgia in a new era of antebellum plantation films such as Shirley Temple’s The Little Colonel (1935) and The Littlest Rebel (1935). In these films Temple could dance carefree with Uncle Billy (Bill “Bojangles” Robinson) without fear of ever running afoul of Gus or Silas Lynch.
Even Margaret Mitchell’s film adaptation of Gone With the Wind, which drew heavily on Birth of a Nation (a film she saw as a child) was careful to avoid some of the earlier tropes. When David O. Selznick bought the film rights to Mitchell’s best-selling novel, he carefully edited out her heroic references to the Ku Klux Klan. So in the film there are unruly black Union soldiers that Mammy brushes away as she escorts Scarlett O’Hara, but they aren’t brutes. And rather than the Klan, we only learn that the white men of the South are part of a nebulous “political organization.” A sanitized South, with even more sanitized terrorists. But still a mythology steeped in the Lost Cause.
Today, on its 100th anniversary, Birth of a Nation stands as a testament to our ability to create mythologies of a past often too troubling to confront directly. It is something to ponder as we dwell on the power of not only the medium of film, but the art of storytelling–especially a story the dominant society wants to hear.
Of note, Birth of a Nation remains a Ku Klux Klan recruiting tale to this day.