Why No One Is Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Feature Film

By
Ku Klux Klan members on horseback drive a black militia out of town in a battle scene from 'The Birth of a Nation,' the first-ever feature-length film, directed by D. W. Griffith, 1914. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

By one way of reckoning, this week — February 8, to be exact — can be called the 100th birthday of the medium that many of us have spent our lives enthralled with: the feature film. But don’t expect any parades, fireworks, grand speeches, or other shows of celebration. That’s because the film that premiered at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles on February 8, 1915, was D. W. Griffith’s The Clansman, soon to be retitled The Birth of a Nation — the most virulently racist major movie ever released in the U.S.

Of course, the definitions of such landmark dates can be debated. (Thanks to propaganda by the French, many people think motion pictures were first publicly projected in Paris by the Lumiere brothers in December of 1895, when in fact this was accomplished in New York by a former Confederate artillery officer named Woodville Latham seven months earlier.) But the three-hour Birth of a Nation had a dual impact that was profound: Aesthetically, it synthesized the various cinematic storytelling devices that had been created until that time into a grand whole that many saw as announcing the arrival of a full-fledged art form; commercially, it performed so spectacularly in road-show engagements across the country as to effectively propel the industry from the era of storefront nickelodeons mainly serving lower-class crowds toward that of stand-alone movie palaces aimed at middle-class viewers. In a real sense, Hollywood itself was constructed on the foundations laid down by Birth, which is sometimes still reckoned the most commercially successful movie ever released.

It’s also frequently awarded a superlative that appears on the cover of an excellent recent study, “D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation,” by historian Melvyn Stokes: “the most controversial motion picture of all time.” To be sure, The Birth of a Nation was controversial on its first release, and it has remained so ever since. What’s stunning now, though, is how completely uncontroversial it was to almost all white Americans in 1915. In a tale that sentimentally embraces both Confederate and Union forces in its account of the Civil War, then blames the South’s Reconstruction woes on a combination of vicious Northern politicians, scheming “mulattos” and scalawags, and African-Americans fumbling with the levers of democracy, the film celebrates the Ku Klux Klan as heroes who saved the white South from ruination. This all reads as howlingly ahistorical now, but then it perfectly articulated a widely embraced doctrine that has a name: white supremacy.

It’s tempting to say that this is what (white) audiences were cheering wildly from coast to coast in 1915, with very few dissenters on their side of the color line. But in reality, they were also swept away by the audiovisual onslaught that Griffith constructed. Though Birth’s publicists erroneously credited him with inventing many of the movie’s stylistic techniques (iris shots, close-ups, parallel action, etc.), there’s no questioning that Griffith, who’d made some 450 mainly short movies since he began directing in 1908, not only understood better than any other filmmaker of the day how to orchestrate these techniques to serve a unified, compelling end, but also was the first to demonstrate their potential for creating long-form films that could keep viewers in frenzied fascination for hours.

It’s almost impossible for us to imagine what it was like for viewers to encounter Birth in 1915. Many would have never seen any movie before; only a few would have seen one longer than 20 minutes; and no one had seen anything with the visual dynamism, emotional power, and spectacular sweep of this one. Among its innovations, Birth owed much of its impact — ironically, for a “silent” film — to being the first movie with a score written specifically for it and performed by a live orchestra, along with a battery of backstage sound effects. Contemporary accounts emphasize how important the film’s sonic attack, coupled with Griffith’s extraordinary editing, was to the way it gripped and galvanized audiences — leaving many thinking they’d seen “history written in lightning,” to quote the famous but probably apocryphal praise by President Woodrow Wilson, after the first-ever screening of a movie in the White House.

Lightning, perhaps. But history? Surely Griffith’s genius, together with the innate realism of motion picture photography, convinced people that’s what they were seeing: the truth, pure and objective. Wizardly cinematographer Billy Bitzer’s images of the Civil War mimicked Matthew Brady’s famous daguerreotypes, and the film’s re-creations of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and Lincoln’s assassination in Ford’s Theater so resembled period photography that it’s not hard to imagine some viewers thinking they were seeing actual footage from the 1860s. Alas, such surface verisimilitude had the effect of lending credence to the racial ideology animating the film’s story, which was owed almost entirely to the man who deserves to be called Birth’s co-auteur.

"Birth of a Nation"'s co-auteurs D.W. Griffith and Thomas Dixon, Jr. Photo: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

Though nearly forgotten now, Thomas Dixon Jr. is one of American history’s most extravagant and protean characters. After studying political science at Johns Hopkins University, where he became friends with Woodrow Wilson, the rangy North Carolinian studied acting for a while, then got a law degree, and, at age 20, was elected to his state’s legislature. But politics proved a temporary diversion; he soon took up the ministry and moved to New York, where his rousing sermons made him a superstar preacher to the Rockefellers and others. Then, giving up the cloth, he wrote two novels that became the basis of Griffith’s film. The Leopard’s Spots and The Clansman were conceived as a rebuttal to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but when they became enormous best sellers, Dixon was still not satisfied. Realizing that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery classic reached far more people in its stage versions than in book form, he turned playwright and wrote a dramatic version of The Clansman, an incendiary racial polemic that was a huge hit nationally a decade before The Birth of a Nation.

Dixon was not a defender of slavery. On the contrary, he was a fervent admirer of abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison and said that as a child, “I learned to hate slavery as much as I hate Hell.” But he believed, deeply and passionately, that African-Americans and whites were separated by innate differences too vast to bridge and that any hopes of constructing a society based on their equality were doomed. He thought that American democracy should be built around the natural superiority of the white race, that African-Americans must accept second-class status akin to that of children, and that the two races should be kept apart as much as possible, as was being done in the Jim Crow South. At the time, as noted, these were anything but extreme or unusual views. Where Dixon exceeded the standard attitudes of the day was in his absolute horror at the sexual mixing of the races — specifically, black men and white women — where his hysterical defense of “purity” went beyond Victorian prudery into the pathological.

“Black men only want to rape white women: that’s the message of Birth of a Nation,” the eminent African-American historian John Hope Franklin says to me in my 2008 documentary Moving Midway, which examines my family’s plantation in North Carolina, its black and white progeny, and the image of the Southern plantation in American popular culture. When I interviewed him, Dr. Franklin said something else that’s not in my film. After the enormous success of Birth, Thomas Dixon, who’d already made several fortunes on his writing and speaking, turned movie producer and kept making money. But he lost everything in the economic crash of 1929, and in the 1930s spent his waning years working as a clerk of court in Raleigh. Dr. Franklin, then doing research for his first book, would see him in front of the courthouse and engage him in pleasant conversations that he recalled to me fondly — an image of how Southern cordiality can make intimates of even the starkest intellectual opponents.

In the writings that made him a best-selling author, playwright, and lecturer, Dixon was obsessed with the Reconstruction period. He had little interest in anything that came before. Griffith, though, being the son of a Confederate officer and a filmmaker who saw the dramatic possibilities of warfare, was at least as interested in the Civil War. That’s why Birth is divided into two parts. The first, concocted by Griffith, takes place just before and during the war. The second, derived from Dixon and reflecting racial and sexual fixations that are far less glaring earlier, transpires during Reconstruction. Both parts focus on two prominent families, one Southern, the Camerons, the other Northern, the Stonemans, who are both brought together and sundered by America’s agonies.

Ku Klux Klan members on horseback drive a black militia out of town in a battle scene from 'The Birth of a Nation.' Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“The bringing of the African to America planted the first seeds of disunion,” reads the film’s first title, which is followed by a shot of slaves being auctioned. Then we meet paterfamilias Austin Stoneman, a powerful congressman in Washington with a scheming mixed-race mistress (the politician is modeled on Thaddeus Stevens, whose relationship is depicted in Spielberg’s Lincoln) as well as three grown offspring who, early on, go south to visit their friends the Camerons and their five children, in mythical Piedmont, South Carolina. Soon after this idyllic opening, however, war breaks out, and most of the film’s first half chronicles its bloody peak, including Sherman’s march to the sea and the battle of Petersburg, where the oldest Cameron boy, Ben, “the Little Colonel,” leads a valiant but doomed Confederate charge that shows Griffith’s unrivaled brilliance at mounting action sequences. After the wounded Ben is sentenced to be hanged as a guerrilla, then spared when his mother appeals directly to President Lincoln, the tale’s first half ends with the South’s surrender and Lincoln’s fateful assassination.

The film’s second part starts off chronicling the humiliation of the South at the hands of Northern carpetbaggers and politicians such as Stoneman, who has a mixed-race protégé named Lynch whom he sends south to help enforce African-American rule. In the film’s general racial scheme, mixed-races, as products of unholy miscegenation, are the most deviant and devious of creatures. African-Americans, on the other hand, are more morally variable. While some are loyal and sympathetic, like the Camerons’ “faithful retainers,” others run wild, drunk on their new freedom, as in the scenes of the African-American-dominated 1871 South Carolina legislature, where the members sip liquor and take off their shoes. Others are worse still: The tale’s emotional pivot comes when a lecherous black soldier named Gus (played, as most of the main black parts were, by a white in blackface) pursues the youngest Cameron daughter, who jumps to her death rather than yield to his advances.

Actors costumed in the full regalia of the Ku Klux Klan chase down a white actor in blackface in a still from 'The Birth of a Nation.' Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This outrage helps spark the film’s climatic action, when Ben Cameron, having been inspired to invent the Ku Klux Klan after seeing white kids dressed in sheets scare African-American children, leads his masked cohorts in the capture, “trial,” and execution of Gus. Thereafter, the hard-riding Klansmen effect two dramatic rescues, saving the embattled elder Camerons from marauding black soldiers at the last possible moment, then storming into Piedmont and forcing rioting African-Americans to cease their predations and flee. Thus is order restored to this corner of South Carolina. All African-Americans are disarmed and the Klan celebrates by parading through the streets. “At the next election,” notes Melvyn Stokes, “blacks are prevented from voting by a line of armed, mounted Klansmen.”

When the film’s premiere ended on February 8, 1915, according to Griffith’s assistant Karl Brown, the audience “didn’t just sit there and applaud, but they stood up and cheered and yelled and stamped feet until Griffith finally made an appearance.” Rather than bowing or waving, the director just stood there and let the acclaim wash over him.

It could be said that that show’s resonances continue down to the present, if one allows that no American film has ever had a greater social impact than The Birth of a Nation. Its after-effects were deep, pronounced, and, in some ways, paradoxical. On one hand, its release coincided with the 1915 revival of the Ku Klux Klan, which had been suppressed by the U.S. government in 1871. The movie and the reborn KKK assisted each other mainly in terms of publicity: While Birth was self-evidently the greatest advertising poster any atavistic organization could wish for, the new Klan — which wore white robes and pointy headgear copied from the movie, not the original Klan’s costumes — helped promote the film, gratis, by parading through towns showing the film in full regalia. Klan 2.0, though, was a nativist outfit that opposed Jews, Catholics, Asians, and immigrants generally, not just blacks, which eventually helped draw some of those constituencies to the side of African-Americans protesting Birth. And the movie’s publicity value only went so far. Five years after its release, still with only a few thousand adherents, the KKK hired professional publicists — really — and saw its membership leap to 100,000 (it later peaked at nearly 5 million, coast to coast, in the mid-1920s).

On the other side of the ledger, Birth gave a similar boost to the NAACP. Founded just five years before Griffith’s film was mounted, the organization in some ways became a national force in opposing the movie. Its Los Angeles branch found out about the film before the scheduled February 8 premiere and appealed to the city’s board of censors, mayor, and police chief to have it banned. Though the bid failed, it established many of the arguments that later opponents would use: The film denigrated the Union and the cause of liberty; it made the black man “look hideous” and imputed to him “the most repulsive habits and depraved passions”; it was pornographic in suggesting an illicit passion between Stoneman and his mistress; it was destined to engender “bitterness and strife between the races” and “with subtle genius, designed to palliate and excuse the lynchings and other acts of violence committed against the Negro.”

Efforts to block the film legally that followed in New York, Boston, and virtually every other city where the film opened were vigorous and sustained, but only a few stopped its showing. White liberals, it was noted, were torn between a dislike of the film and a dislike of censorship, a concern shared by some in the NAACP. Other opponents feared their activities only provided the movie with free publicity. And even its bitterest detractors sometimes combined their objections with praise for the artistic power and originality of Griffith’s creation. During the first year of the film’s release, the NAACP doubled its membership, and it continued the fight for many years. Indeed, some have seen its turn from legal maneuvers to protests and demonstrations as a forerunner of tactics to come. In that sense, it might be said that the historic civil-rights activism depicted in Selma had crucial roots in the campaign against The Birth of a Nation.

No less crucial, of course, was the movie’s lingering impact on film and other media, some of it rather bitterly ironic. While it surely helped launch the American feature film industry, and its phenomenal box-office success was envied by moviemakers forever after, the controversy and polemical fire generated by Birth proved a negative incentive for Hollywood producers, who in later decades scrupulously avoided racial themes and relegated African-American characters to background roles as mammies, butlers, and entertainers. It would be nearly a half-century before America’s movie and TV screens saw the emergence of prominent, realistic African-American characters — whose relative dearth even today remains a topic of debate and media soul-searching.

So: What, finally, do we make of this holy monstrosity, this poisoned cornerstone of American cinema? And what do we do about it? Ignore it? Consign it to the cultural rubbish heap, alongside minstrel shows and other politically incorrect pop effluvia of yore? Display and discuss it only in scholarly contexts? Or: bring it back into the national discussion, as if it might still have a few things to tell us — some not very flattering, perhaps — about America in the era of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner ( … and all the others)? Things that suggest how we got to this particular crossroads.

My own thoughts on these questions involve a recollection of teaching Birth a few years ago to a class of bright undergraduates at a Southern university, as part of a survey course on the history of film. Aware that young viewers today are notoriously resistant to anything old, black-and-white, and (especially) silent, I was expecting yawns and annoyed fidgeting. Instead, the film — its hypnotic power intact after nearly a century — held the class riveted for three hours, few students even taking bathroom breaks. Afterward, I asked: Should this movie be shown today, in this class or anywhere? Some white students, shocked and embarrassed by the film, said it shouldn’t be shown, at all. African-American and Asian students, on the other hand, felt just the opposite, saying it must be seen — as widely as possible.

That reaction reminds us that every film changes as the cultural context around it does. The Birth of a Nation of 2015 is not the Birth of a Nation of 1985 or 1965 or 1935 or 1915. And that’s a key to the paradoxical feelings the movie inevitably generates today. On the one hand, the advocacy of white supremacy of a century ago has been decisively bested by a common philosophy of equal rights for all — indeed, overt public attitudes about race have shifted 180 degrees since 1915 — and it’s hard to imagine most Americans are not profoundly grateful for that change. On the other hand, the sentiments expressed in Griffith’s film are undeniably baked into the nation’s DNA, as events of the last century, from Selma to Ferguson, keep reminding us. In that sense, The Birth of a Nation survives — very uncomfortably for some, no doubt — as perhaps the greatest documentary ever made about the stain of racism on America’s soul. As such, pace my students, it is required viewing for anyone wanting to understand this country’s history.

It’s no less essential for anyone wanting to grasp the ambivalent spells movies cast over us, especially ones in which visceral excitements and racial undertones intertwine. Griffith, after all, invented much about this popular art form, and his influence abides. For example, as the music swells and helicopters sweep down from the night sky at the climax of Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips — another scene, like those in a thousand Westerns, of heroic white guys riding to the rescue of innocent whites imperiled by vicious darkies — I couldn’t help but recall the Klan’s triumphant arrival, set to the strains of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” in Birth. These days, of course, cinematic hostility toward the darker races is usually permissible only when they are foreign. Which is to say: Is it not possible — just something to think about, trolls — that Americans a century from now will be as appalled by the huge popularity of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, as we are by the countrywide hosannahs that greeted Birth?

I must admit that my own fascination with Griffith’s film has some personal roots. According to family lore, Thomas Dixon took the name of the Southern clan in his fiction from some ancestors of mine named Cameron he befriended when he was a legislator in Raleigh; the real Camerons were the largest slaveholders in North Carolina on the eve of the Civil War. I had reason to recall this connection in 2006 in New York when I went to see Rebirth of a Nation, a “hip-hop remix” of Griffith’s movie by DJ Spooky (Paul Miller) in which images from the film are extracted, jumbled, framed by various graphics, and set to (very infectious) hip-hop beats. Griffith’s movie cheered at Lincoln Center in 2006? It was certainly weird, but I saw it.

When DJ Spooky brought the show to Chapel Hill a few months later, I interviewed him for Moving Midway (our conversation is among my film’s DVD extras). We met at UNC’s Memorial Hall, the venue for Rebirth, where I showed him a plaque commemorating Paul Cameron, the clan’s paterfamilias at the time of the Civil War. We then went to the Camerons’ plantation, Stagville (outside Durham), and visited the slave quarters, which survive and are open to the public.

I told Miller that seeing a black artist take control of Griffith’s work, as it were, seemed to me to release some of the film’s toxins, and was certainly preferable to any effort to forget or bury Birth. He nodded and said: “Repressing memory and repressing history doesn’t solve the problem. What I’ve been doing with the remix is trying to confront it, explore it, and also say that perhaps we need [to use it] to look at the present.”

Amen, brother.