“Birth of a Nation” at 100 Years Old


Liberals and multiculturalists hate it when confronted with works of obvious genius which don’t fall into the pattern of their worldview. Along with angst-fuelled hand-wringing over certain works by Shakespeare and Wagner, a more modern manifestation of the problem is the cinematic landmark, The Birth of a Nation (available in part here), which will quietly celebrate its centenary this week. Compelling, innovative, trend-setting, and epic in scale, D.W. Griffith’s astonishing and unflinching vision of the Civil War and Reconstruction-era South remains powerful viewing even on its hundredth birthday.

I was an impressionable eighteen-year-old college student when I first viewed it. Despite the admonitions and careful commentaries of my film and media professor, I remember seeing past the fact that it was silent and interspersed with grainy captions and being impressed by its ‘modern’ style and appearance, and the smoothness of the editorial process. But it was some years later before I came to truly appreciate the scale and meaning of what Griffith had committed to film. On this occasion I watched it in North Carolina, at the home of my wife’s very elderly grandfather. This remarkable old man was every inch a Southerner, and a true gentleman at that. There one humid May evening, with the AC broken down and the windows wide open, the old man pulled out some Civil War relics that he had collected over the years. Presenting a series of antique rifles, medals, and pictures of Lee and Jackson, his eyes regained a youthful spark as he spoke of his own family memories and connections (real or imagined) to a host of Confederate heroes. Later in the evening, after we set down the relics of war in favor of cigars and Scotch, he pulled out a dusty VHS from an old bookcase. It was Birth of a Nation. It’s a long movie, clocking in at over three hours, and the old man drifted off to sleep within the first half hour. But I kept watching. And it was that night, with the firebugs glowing and buzzing by the open windows, and with the fragrant Southern air drifting slowly inside, that I felt what Griffith had aimed to portray — pride of land, pride of culture, and pride of blood.

This kind of pride, of course, and the connected desire to protect and preserve what one is proud of, is anathema to our enemies and those of our own race and culture who follow a different worldview. But they clearly have a hard time simply dismissing prideful cultural products which are so clearly manifestations of great genius and sublime art. Griffith sought out realism like no other previous director, using consultants from West Point Academy to make the battle scenes as realistic as possible. Most of the uniforms worn by the actors were authentic uniforms used in the actual Civil War. As an editor, Griffith broke free of the prevailing “filmed stage play” paradigm of static filmmaking and used flashbacks and parallel scenes to provide a sense of simultaneous action that made film (for the first time) completely different than live theater. The quick cuts of movies, television, and even advertising today owe their beginnings in many ways to Birth of a Nation. Similarly, the evocative, inspiring modern movie score has its roots in Birth of a Nation, which featured a full, three-hour score full of original music, contemporary standards such as (the unavoidable) “Dixie,” and classical music such as Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. The juxtaposition of technical brilliance and racialist subject matter, however, makes for uncomfortable viewing among liberals and opponents of White identity. Media site A.V. Club, one of the very few media outlets to even mention the centenary of Birth of a Nation, remarks:

As far as problematic art in America is concerned, Birth of A Nation is the closest thing there is to a dictionary definition example, mostly because American culture has had a really hard time letting it go, or has turned not letting it go into a critical art in and of itself. Birth of A Nation is the movie where many of the values associated with ,American filmmaking—complex intercutting, massed crowds of extras contrasted with close-ups of actors, carefully edited suspense and chase scenes—get their first really clear, fully formed expression. It’s also unquestionably white supremacist and racist. It represents a key point in the history of American art, and is animated by some of the ugliest rhetoric America ever produced. You can’t write a history of American movies—or movies in general—without mentioning Birth of A Nation. That’s not really what I want to talk about here, though. What I want to talk about instead is an idea that’s also connected to Birth of A Nation, which is the idea that art or entertainment can be aesthetically good while being ideologically bad—an idea that’s kind of intoxicating, because it suggests that it’s possible to navigate a movie on form alone, and also deeply problematic, because it’s founded on the notion that style and content are two different things, rather than different ways of looking at the same object.

The movie premiered on February 8, 1915, in Los Angeles, and tickets were sold at the then-record $2 ($46.88 today). At that time, it was called The Clansman, and was based heavily on the best-selling 1905 novel of the same name by Thomas Dixon. In Griffith’s own words, when his assistant Frank Woods brought him the The Clansman, he “skipped quickly through the book until I got to the bit about the Klansmen, who according to no less than Woodrow Wilson, ran to the rescue of the downtrodden South after the Civil War. I could just see these Klansmen in a movie with their white robes flying. …We had all sorts of runs-to-the-rescue in pictures and horse operas. … Now I could see the chance to do this ride to the rescue on a grand scale. Instead of saving one little Nell of the Plains, this ride would be to save a nation.”

And this, essentially, is what occurs. The movie climaxes, famously or infamously depending on your worldview, with two attempted rapes of White women by Black men and the subsequent reaction against Black political and sexual revolution by the white-robed Knights of Christ.

The essence of the film was bound up to some extent with the inter-connected personal histories and experiences of the three major figures in its production and dissemination: President Woodrow Wilson, author Thomas Dixon, and film-maker D.W. Griffith. All three were Southerners who had moved north at the end of the nineteenth century. Dixon and Griffith had known each other as Johns Hopkins students. After Dixon became a minister, and Wilson a professor, Dixon nominated Wilson to receive an honorary degree at his own undergraduate alma mater, Wake Forest. “He is the type of man we need as President of the United States,” Dixon wrote to the board of trustees. Dixon later resigned as a minister to become a writer; and Griffith (before he turned to movies) acted in some of Dixon’s earliest plays. Griffith later used The Clansman, Wilson’s History of the American People, and other materials provided by Dixon as sources for Birth of a Nation, and Griffith and Dixon worked equally hard to make and promote the movie. One of its first viewers was Wilson, who watched it at the White House shortly after the death of his wife. To Wilson, the movie was “like writing history with lightning … and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Wilson later permitted his endorsement to be used to promote the film, until he succumbed to tremendous pressure from early multiculturalist organizations to distance himself from it.


The movie was also a product and reaction against its times. The 1910s should really be remembered as the decade in which Whites first began to doubt the invulnerability of their position in America. Decades of mass immigration (including millions of Jews), and a rapid increase in political action on behalf of Blacks shook White confidence in the future. On July 4, 1910 Whites were stunned when Jim Jeffries, billed as ‘The Hope of the White Race’ was defeated by the first Black world heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson — a vulgar individual notorious for his pompous affection for White women. Race riots and increasing cultural pessimism were rampant throughout the decade. Tellingly, a year after Birth premiered, the Manhattan patrician Madison Grant published his The Passing of the Great Race. Griffith’s film was thus as much a call for a nation to be reborn as it was a historical recollection of the South being rescued by the Klan from the maw of a savage beast. And it was probably its contemporary resonance more than its historical interpretation which provoked the greatest of the efforts to prevent it from being shown.

Of course the most controversial aspects of the movie is Dixon’s (and by extension Griffith’s) depiction of Blacks. Joel Williamson, in The Crucible of Race, argues that from 1880 to 1920 three competing “mentalities” existed in Southern thinking on Blacks. The ‘liberal’ believed in the Black’s possibilities. The ‘conservative’ presumed inferiority but was willing to permit Black people in their ‘place.’ Finally, there was the ‘radical conservative,’ typified by Dixon, who believed that the ‘new negro’ would (and was) quickly regressing into savagery due to the breakdown of control offered by slavery and racial laws.[1] The descent of Blacks into savagery is carefully and slowly documented in Birth. In some of the early scenes, genteel walks among the plantations show Blacks contentedly going about their work under the regimentation offered by the ‘peculiar institution.’ They are shown as grovelling and glib, but generally cheerful and not very threatening. Later in the movie however, due to the political machinations of the evil abolitionist Austin Stoneman, and the actions of the psychopathic mulatto Silas Lynch, the camera lingers more on leering and increasingly menacing Black expressions, and the chaos of armed Black uprisings. Griffith’s painful portrayal of a cultural idyll descending into utter filth and collapse is nothing short of remarkable.

Modern opponents of the movie see things differently. AV Club comment that

in the most basic terms, Birth Of A Nation is a melodrama and a fantasy of white Southern victimhood—which is to say, a fantasy of power, which made heroes out of the Ku Klux Klan. The Black characters are racist caricatures—“coal miner with back problems” is the most popular look—played by white people; plenty of Black people appear as extras, which makes the Blackface seem all the more racist, because one inevitably experiences the extras not just as actors, but as an on-screen audience. The villains are biracial schemers who’ve tricked or seduced Northern whites into believing that they are fit to run Southern society. (“I shall make this man, Silas Lynch, as a symbol of his race, the peer of any white man living!” declares Austin Stoneman, the movie’s stand-in for Thaddeus Stevens, as though he were Dr. Frankenstein contemplating his monster.) The whole thing ends with a giant, translucent Jesus appearing to endorse the KKK. Griffith’s original ending, now long lost, also either depicted or implied Blacks being deported to Africa.

Although opposition to the film has assumed many guises over the last hundred years, it is far from new. The NAACP, which at the time was a Jewish puppet organization, had been in existence for six years when Griffith’s film debuted. One month before it began showing in New York, the NAACP chose the strategy of a nationwide protest against the movie, arguing that showing it would represent “a threat to the peace.” However, Birth’s technical virtuosity had already gained it a significant reputation which hampered censorship attempts. The NAACP’s success was thus limited to a few changes demanded by some film boards, and to a handful of delays to some showings.

This wasn’t due to a lack of effort. Janet Staiger notes that “between 1915 and 1973 the right to screen The Birth of a Nation was challenged at least 120 times. Indeed, the strategy of the NAACP was to continue its opposition to the film any time someone tried to revive it.”[2] Most of the later protests were calculating in that they avoided confronting the movie’s depictions of Blacks, in preference for challenging showings on their alleged threat to public peace or glorification of crime (lynching).[3]

Jews were also aware of the need to use their already growing power in Hollywood to ensure the success of their own racial narrative in the hearts and minds of the White masses. Griffith may have won a battle, but Jews were determined to win the war. Indeed, many Jews “stood against Griffith’s Birth of a Nation either by joining Rabbi Stephen Wise and the NAACP in the raucous demonstrations in the office of the Mayor of New York, or by joining (Jewish entrepreneur Julius) Rosenwald in backing some sort of cinematic challenge to Griffith such as The Birth of a Race.”[4] The Birth of a Race (1918) was a movie designed to “discredit the negative stereotypes of Blacks” perpetuated by Griffith’s film. Originally conceived by Emmett J. Scott, personal secretary to Booker T. Washington, all of the movie’s funding came from Jewish sources like Rosenwald, William Selig’s Polyscope company, Carl Laemmle’s IMP firm, and also from German Jewish financier Jacob Schiff. All would later combine permanently to form Universal Pictures.[5] The moves of the Jewish moguls responded to wider Jewish opinion. Eric Goldstein writes in The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity that many Jews were

outraged by the appearance of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, in 1915. One Jewish woman suggested that Black leaders join forces with Jewish media moguls to produce an ‘up-to-date story which would give the spirit of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in a modern convincing representation of the progress and work of the negro race,’ and ‘offset the prejudicial influence’ of Griffith’s racist epic.[6]

There’s no doubt that this is precisely what the Jewish moguls set about doing, and continue to do today.

But, during its heyday, there is also little doubt that Birth of a Nation had a powerful and galvanizing effect on Whites, and was highly conducive in encouraging Whites to see themselves as members of a threatened group. In some respects, it was a highly effective antidote to White pathology. In December of the same year that Birth of a Nation debuted, William J. Simmons resurrected the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia, thus riding the wave of popular support gained from the film to overcome federal suppression of the group that dated back to the 1870s. By 1928, more than forty thousand Klansmen were walking down Pennsylvania Avenue. On April 5, 1915, two months after Birth’s premiere, Jack Johnson finally lost his title to the next “Great White Hope,” Jess Willard. The work of Griffith and Dixon may have contributed at least something to the new White solidarity. Staiger notes that

when one of the 1933 Payne Fund studies screened The Birth of a Nation to 434 middle and high school students in a predominantly white Illinois town, the researchers determined the “largest effect found in any of the experiments we conducted.” The children’s ‘favorable’ opinion of African Americans dropped from a mean of 7.46 on a scale of 11 to 0 to 5.93, down 1.48 points. Testing five months later suggested only a partial return to the original views.”[7]

Looking back and reflecting on the century that has passed, I couldn’t helped but be struck by the fact that The Birth of a Nation was both a moment of White triumph and, in some respects, a moment of defeat. It was a point in which Whites, as in so many other cases, acted as pioneers, innovators, and creators, only to have those same techniques employed against them  by a movie industry that had become an ethnic monopoly hostile to the traditional American nation. The Birth of a Nation marked both the birth of modern cinema, and the last point in time in which a narrative of White fraternity and solidarity could be so openly displayed. Never again would the moguls let anything like Griffith’s masterpiece reach the masses. And even now its anniversary passes by unheralded.

But for tonight at least, I’ll grab a Scotch and a cigar. The VHS will have to make way for a streaming on a Smart TV. And as the opening credits roll, I’d like to think that maybe somewhere, somehow, there’s an old Southerner looking down on me.


[1] See R. Lang (ed), The Birth of a Nation: D.W. Griffith, Director (Rutgers University Press, 1994), p.197

[2] Ibid, p.199.

[3] Ibid.

[4] M. Adams (ed) Strangers & Neighbors: Relations Between Blacks and Jews in the United States (University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), p.460

[5] Ibid.

[6] E. Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton University Press, 2006), p.74

[7] Ibid.

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