The whole point of Cinema 100 is to examine the influence of movies on society. There are few movies, however, where the effects were as vast and apparent as with D. W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation. In 1915, the movie netted an impressive 10 million dollars, a massive sum for the time. But despite the success, the movie was surrounded by controversy. Why?
The Birth of a Nation was based off of a novel called “The Clansmen.” The Clansmen was written for one purpose and one purpose only: to convince the North that racial segregation was necessary to prevent chaos. In Griffith’s film, the racism is overt. Every black character portrayed within the movie was a white painted black using the technique of Blackface. Stereotypical racial features were accented to the extreme. Most actors played their roles hunched over, eyes wide, lips pushed out. The outcry over this was so great that this was one of the last films to use the technique. The black men are portrayed as reckless with guns, shooting without thought. They were also portrayed as stupid and incapable of running a government.
But perhaps the most controversial and influential part of the movie was how it treated the Ku Klux Klan. The first Ku Klux Klan existed only for about ten years or so after the end of the Civil war. The KKK tried to reassert the supremacy of the whites while simultaneously acting as a force that lashed out against the Northern states imposing their will upon the South. The Klan operated as a terrorist organization: intimidating, attacking, and murdering those who stood against it.
Birth of a Nation tells a different story. After watching the movie, one might be lead to believe the KKK was a heroic force fighting against the oppression of the corrupt carpetbaggers and politicians while also saving innocent whites from the lustful and dangerous blacks. At one point the movie says “The result: the Ku Klux Klan, the organization that saved the South from the anarchy of black rule…” The KKK, portrayed as a massive force of horse riders, saved a family from being killed by a black militia, dethroned a corrupt politician, and more in the three hour film.
To say the controversy that followed would be an understatement. The NAACP protested premieres around the US. There were riots in several cities including Boston and Philadelphia; several others refused to let it be shown. In the same year that the film was released, the Second KKK was founded. Used as propaganda, the film was shown to many members, as well as The Clansmen, which exploded in popularity as a result. Over 6 million people eventually joined the second Klan, twelve times as many as the first. The film served to ignite much of the social unrest between whites and blacks at the time period as well as playing off of the fears of those who wanted to protect their homes and families. By re-awakening fears of an old enemy, The Birth of a Nation allowed the KKK to step into the 20th century and flourish.