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Decried from Day One

'The Birth of a Nation' sparked protests even before its premiere in Los Angeles, and the Ku Klux Klan saw a rise in membership upon its release.

September 19, 2004|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Filmmaker D.W. Griffith was naively shocked by the angry protests over his Civil War epic, "The Birth of a Nation" -- he even made the apologetic "Intolerance" the following year in response to the cries of racism. But the source material for his landmark 1915 film was steeped in hatred and prejudice.

"Birth of a Nation" was based on a 1905 novel and 1906 play, "The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan," by former North Carolina Baptist minister Thomas A. Dixon. It was the second volume in a trilogy in which Dixon extolled the superiority of the white race and the violent exploits of the KKK.

In "The Clansman," he wrote that he hoped to "teach the North, the young North, what it has never known -- the awful suffering of the white man during the dreadful Reconstruction period. I believe that Almighty God anointed the white men of the South by their suffering during that time."

Griffith's father, a cavalry officer for the Confederacy, had returned home from the Civil War a broken man, and like Dixon, the Kentucky-born Griffith blamed Reconstructionists and Southern blacks for all of his family's misfortunes. And "The Birth of a Nation" was released just 50 years after the war's end, so the brutal conflict was still fresh in many citizens' minds. In 1915, the country was mired in lynchings in the South, and Jim Crow laws and resentment over the influx of Southern blacks moving to the big cities in the North.

Over the decades, the plot line and memorable performances of "The Birth of a Nation" have been overtaken by the film's blatant racism and the extreme acting styles of the white actors in blackface playing "uppity" former Southern slaves.

During his tenure at Biograph Studios, Griffith had not only developed sophisticated, innovative visual and editing techniques to tell his stories, but also elicited natural performances from his stock company of actors. And the same is true with "The Birth of a Nation." The massive cast -- which includes Henry Walthall, Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish, Wallace Reid, Raoul Walsh and Donald Crisp -- is uniformly excellent in this epic tale of two families, one from the North and one from the South, who are the best of friends before the war but find themselves fighting each other on the battlefields.

The Civil War, though, is just the beginning of the South's problems, with -- as Griffith portrays them -- illiterate blacks gaining control of the South Carolina Legislature and disenfranchising the whites. As his old "genteel" world is torn asunder, Confederate vet Ben Cameron starts the Ku Klux Klan. With his white-sheeted cavalry, he avenges the rape of two white women by African Americans -- who are depicted as oversexed demons. The film's allegorical ending finds Christ's resurrection helping to heal the torn nation.

Even before the film -- then titled "The Clansman" -- premiered in Los Angeles on Feb. 8, 1915, the recently formed National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People protested its release. In fact, it opened in Los Angeles only after Griffith got a court injunction. The local censors had approved the film, but City Council members voted to suppress it because of its racist content. The film was retitled "The Birth of a Nation" when it opened in New York City the following month.

Riots and protests

The NAACP sent a scathing review of the film, describing it as "the meanest vilification of the Negro race," to more than 500 newspapers across the country and warned that riots could erupt if theaters showed it. In fact, riots and/or protests did erupt in Dallas, Boston, New York, Nashville, Philadelphia and elsewhere. The film wasn't even released in as many as eight states, including Kansas and Ohio. Meanwhile, the KKK saw a rise in membership after the film's release, and when it opened in Atlanta on Thanksgiving Day in 1915, 25,000 Klansmen paraded through the streets.

Despite the outcry, "The Birth of a Nation," which cost $500,000 to make and featured a cast of 18,000, ranked as the most profitable film for more than two decades, until "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" was released in 1937. In its 11-month run in New York City, 3 million tickets were sold. And the admission price was exorbitant for the time -- $2 per ticket. Some estimates put the film's total gross at $60 million.

But the protests did have an impact. Two particularly offensive sequences were cut, including a love scene between a Reconstructionist senator and his mulatto mistress, and an introduction signed by Griffith, titled "A Plea for the Art of the Motion Picture," was added:

"We do not fear censorship, for we have no wish to offend with improprieties or obscenities, but we do demand, as a right, the liberty to show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue.... If in this work we have conveyed to the mind the ravages of war to the end that war may be held in abhorrence, this effort will not have been in vain."

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