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The Birth of a Nation (1915)

 

The Birth of a Nation (premiered with the title The Clansman) is a 1915 silent film directed by D. W. Griffith. Set during and after the American Civil War, the film was based on Thomas Dixon's The Clansman, a novel and play.

The Birth of a Nation was the highest-grossing film of its day, and is noted for its innovative camera techniques and narrative achievements. It has provoked great controversy for promoting white supremacy and positively portraying the "knights" (male members) of the Ku Klux Klan as heroes.

">Plot
This silent film was originally presented in two parts separated by an intermission. Part 1 depicted pre-Civil War America, introducing two juxtaposed families: the Northern Stonemans, consisting of abolitionist Congressman Austin Stoneman (based on real-life Reconstruction-era Congressman Thaddeus Stevens), his two sons, and his daughter, Elsie, and the Southern Camerons, a family including two daughters (Margaret and Flora) and three sons, most notably Ben.

The Stoneman boys visit the Camerons at their South Carolina estate, representing the Old South. The eldest Stoneman boy falls in love with Margaret Cameron, and Ben Cameron idolizes a picture of Elsie Stoneman. When the Civil War begins, all the young men join their respective armies. A black militia (with a white leader) ransacks the Cameron house. The Cameron women are rescued when Confederate soldiers rout the militia. Meanwhile, the youngest Stoneman and two Cameron boys are killed in the war. Ben Cameron is wounded after a heroic battle in which he gains the nickname, "the Little Colonel," by which he is referred for the rest of the film. The Little Colonel is taken to a Northern hospital where he meets Elsie, who is working there as a nurse. The war ends and Abraham Lincoln is assassinated at Ford's Theater, allowing Austin Stoneman and other radical congressmen to punish the South for secession, using radical measures Griffith depicts as typical of the Reconstruction era.



Part 2 depicts Reconstruction. Stoneman and his "mulatto" protegé, Silas Lynch, go to South Carolina to observe the expanded franchise. Black soldiers parade through the streets. During the election, whites are shown being turned away while blacks stuff the ballot boxes. The newly elected black legislature passes laws requiring white civilians to salute black officers and allowing mixed-race marriages.

Meanwhile, Ben, inspired by observing white children pretending to be ghosts to scare off black children, devises a plan to reverse the perceived powerlessness of Southern whites by forming the Ku Klux Klan. Elsie is angered by his membership in the group.

Hooded Klansmen catch Gus, a black man whom the filmmaker described as "a renegade, a product of the vicious doctrines spread by the carpetbaggers." Gus was portrayed in blackface by white actor Walter Long.



Then Gus, a former slave who became educated and gained a title of recognition through the army, proposes to marry Flora. Scared by Gus' lascivious advances, she flees into the forest, pursued by Gus. Trapped on a precipice, Flora leaps to her death. In response, the Klan hunts Gus, tries him and finds him guilty, kills him, and leaves his corpse on Lieutenant Governor Silas Lynch's doorstep. In retaliation, Lynch orders a crackdown on the Klan. The Camerons flee from the black militia and hide out in a small hut, home to two former Union soldiers, who agree to assist their former Southern foes in defending their Aryan birthright, according to the caption.

Meanwhile, with Austin Stoneman gone, Lynch tries to force Elsie to marry him. Disguised Klansmen discover her situation and leave to get reinforcements. The Klan, now at full strength, rides to her rescue and takes the opportunity to disperse the rioting negroes. Simultaneously, Lynch's militia surrounds and attacks the hut where the Camerons are hiding, but the Klan saves them just in time. Victorious, the Klansmen celebrate in the streets. The film cuts to the next election where the Klan successfully disenfranchises black voters and disarms the blacks. The film concludes with a double honeymoon of Phil Stoneman with Margaret Cameron and Ben Cameron with Elsie Stoneman. The final frame shows masses oppressed by a mythical god of war suddenly finding peace under the image of Christ. The final title rhetorically asks: "Dare we dream of a golden day when the bestial War shall rule no more? But instead-the gentle Prince in the Hall of Brotherly Love in the City of Peace."


Production

The Birth of a Nation pioneered such camera techniques as deep focus, jump-cut, and facial close-up, which are now considered integral to the industry. It also contains many new cinematic innovations, special effects, and artistic techniques. At the time, it shattered both box office and film-length records, running three hours and ten minutes. It was voted one of the "Top 100 American Films" (# 44) by the American Film Institute in 1998.

The film was based on Thomas Dixon's novels The Clansman and The Leopard's Spots. Griffith, whose father served as a colonel in the Confederate Army, agreed to pay Thomas Dixon $10,000 for the rights to his play The Clansman. Since he ran out of money and could afford only $2,500 of the original option, Griffith offered Dixon 25 percent interest in the picture. Dixon reluctantly agreed. The film's unprecedented success made him rich. Dixon's proceeds were the largest sum any author had received for a motion picture story and amounted to several million dollars.

Griffith's budget started at US$40,000, but the film finally cost $112,000 (the equivalent of $2.38 million in 2008). As a result, Griffith had to seek new sources of capital for his film. A ticket to the film cost a record $2 (the equivalent of $42.07 in 2008). It was the most profitable film in history until it was dethroned by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937.

Woodrow Wilson's History of the American People is quoted in The Birth of a Nation.

West Point engineers provided technical advice on the Civil War battle scenes. They provided Griffith with the artillery used in the film.

The film premiered on February 8, 1915, at Clune's Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles.

At its premiere the film was entitled The Clansman but the title was later changed to The Birth of a Nation to reflect Griffith's belief that the United States emerged out of the American Civil War and Reconstruction as a unified nation.

The film is currently in the public domain.


Responses

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909, protested premieres of the film in numerous cities. It also conducted a public education campaign, publishing articles' protesting the film's fabrications and inaccuracies, organizing petitions against it, and conducting education on the facts of the war and Reconstruction.

When the film was shown, riots broke out in Boston, Philadelphia and other major cities. Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and St. Louis refused to allow the film to open. The film's inflammatory character was a catalyst for gangs of whites to attack blacks. In Lafayette, Indiana, after seeing the movie, a white man murdered a black teenager.


> Thomas Dixon, author of the source play The Clansman, was a former classmate of President Woodrow Wilson at Johns Hopkins University. Dixon arranged a screening at the White House, for Wilson, members of his cabinet, and their families. Wilson was reported to have commented of the film that "it is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true". In Wilson: the new freedom, Arthur Link quotes Wilson's aide, Joseph Tumulty, who denied Wilson said this and also claims that "the President was entirely unaware of the nature of the play before it was presented and at no time has expressed his approbation of it." However, Woodrow Wilson's History of the American People explained the Ku Klux Klan of the late 1860s as the natural outgrowth of Reconstruction, a lawless reaction to a lawless period. Wilson noted that the Klan "began to attempt by intimidation what they were not allowed to attempt by the ballot or by any ordered course of public action." In the film, approbation for the Klan, citing Wilson's History, is directly quoted.


 


Relentless in publicizing the film, Dixon was apparently the source for the quotation. It has been repeated so often in print that it has taken on a separate life. Dixon went so far as to promote the film as "Federally endorsed". After controversy over the film had grown, Wilson wrote that he disapproved of the "unfortunate production." D. W. Griffith responded to the film's negative critical reception with his next film Intolerance.

In 1918 Emmett J. Scott helped produce and John W. Noble directed The Birth of a Race in response. The film portrayed a positive image of blacks. Although the film was panned by white critics, it was well-received by black critics and moviegoers attending segregated theaters. Also in 1919, director/producer/writer Oscar Micheaux released Within Our Gates, another response. Notably, he reversed a key scene of Griffith's film by depicting a white man's assaulting a black woman.


 


Ideology and accuracy

The film is controversial due to its interpretation of history. University of Houston historian Steven Mintz summarizes its message as follows: Reconstruction was a disaster, blacks could never be integrated into white society as equals, and the violent actions of the Ku Klux Klan were justified to reestablish honest government. The film suggested that the Ku Klux Klan restored order to the post-war South, which was depicted as endangered by abolitionists, freedmen, and carpetbagging Republican politicians from the North. This reflects the so-called Dunning School of historiography.

W. E. B. Du Bois and other black historians vigorously disputed this interpretation when the film was released. Most historians of all backgrounds today agree with them, as they note African Americans' loyalty and contributions during the Civil War years and Reconstruction, including the establishment of universal public education. Some historians, such as E. Merton Coulter in his The South Under Reconstruction (1947), maintained the Dunning School view after World War II. Today the Dunning School position is largely seen as a product of anti-black racism of the early twentieth century, by which many Americans held that black Americans were unequal as citizens.


 

Veteran film reviewer Roger Ebert wrote,

* ... stung by criticisms that the second half of his masterpiece was racist in its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan and its brutal images of blacks, Griffith tried to make amends in Intolerance (1916), which criticized prejudice. And in "Broken Blossoms" he told perhaps the first interracial love story in the movies--even though, to be sure, it's an idealized love with no touching.

Despite some similarities between the Congressman Stoneman character and Rep. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, Rep. Stevens did not have the family members described and did not move to South Carolina during Reconstruction. He died in Washington, DC in 1868.

The depictions of mass Klan paramilitary actions do not seem to have historical equivalents, although there were incidents in 1871 where Klan groups traveled from other areas in fairly large numbers to aid localities in disarming local companies of the all-black portion of the state militia under various justifications prior to the eventual Federal troop intervention and the organized Klan's continued activities as small groups of "night riders".

The civil rights movement and other social movements created a new generation of historians, such as scholar Eric Foner, who led a reassessment of Reconstruction. Building on Du Bois' work but also adding new sources, they focused on achievements of the African American and white Republican coalitions, such as establishment of universal public education and charitable institutions in the South and extension of suffrage to black men. In response, the Southern-dominated Democratic Party and its affiliated white militias used extensive terrorism, intimidation and outright assassinations to suppress African-American leaders and voting in the 1870s and to regain power.

Significance

Released in 1915, the film has been credited with securing a successful future of feature-length films (any film over 60 minutes in length) and of the film industry itself, as well as solidifying the visual language of cinema.

In its day, it was the highest-grossing film, taking in more than $10 million, according to the box cover of the Shepard version of the DVD (equivalent to $200 million in 2007).



The website Rotten Tomatoes, which compiles reviews from various sources, indicates the film has a 100% "fresh" (positive) rating.

In 1992 the United States Library of Congress deemed the film "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. Despite its controversial story, the film has been praised by film critics such as Roger Ebert, who said: "'The Birth of a Nation' is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil."


 

According to a 2002 article in the Los Angeles Times, the film facilitated the refounding of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. As late as the 1970s, the Ku Klux Klan continued to use the film as a recruitment tool.

 

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