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1915 Seventy-five Years Ago

March 2023
1min read

The Birth of a Nation , D. W. Griffith’s epic film of the Civil War and Southern Reconstruction, opened on March 3 at the Liberty Theater in New York City. The film’s $110,000 budget and fifteen-week schedule were unheard of at a time when most features cost $10,000 and took one week to shoot. Griffith sank his entire personal fortune as well as his weekly paychecks into the project, in the belief that it would be the greatest and most profitable film of all time.

The director’s search for a monumental subject for his masterpiece led him to The Clansman , Thomas Dixon’s novel and play celebrating a former Confederate soldier’s role in the formation of the Ku Klux Klan. The story appealed to Griffith’s romantic vision of the antebellum South. President Woodrow Wilson, himself a scholar of the Reconstruction era, watched a private screening in the White House and said: “It is like writing history with Lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

The White House was soon trying to disavow Wilson’s remarks. Though Griffith had been persuaded to cut several blatantly racist scenes from the final version, his representations of black Americans provoked a flood of protest. The Nation termed it “a deliberate attempt to humiliate ten million American citizens and portray them as nothing but beasts.” Riots attended the Chicago, Boston, and Atlanta openings, and eight states refused to allow the movie to be shown. “To make a few dirty dollars,” charged the New York Globe , “men are willing to pander to depraved tastes and to foment a race antipathy that is the most sinister and dangerous feature of American life.”

Griffith answered his critics with a pamphlet on free speech, but his skills as a film maker required no explanation. The Birth of a Nation was a stunning technical achievement that showed for the first time the power of motion pictures as a medium of political and social persuasion. Griffith’s virtuosity made the film’s ideology all the more potent. “Never before,” remarked the philosopher Thorstein Veblen, “have I seen such concise misinformation.”

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