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The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith, 1915, silent black and white film. The scene depicts the "renegade Negro," Gus, played by white actor Walter Long in blackface, in the hands of the Klan, from Part II of The Birth of a Nation. Museum of Modern Art, Film Stills Archive.
D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation
D.W. Griffith's 1915 Civil War epic, The Birth of a Nation, with its groundbreaking camerawork -- including close-ups, night photography, and tracking shots -- transforms forever the way films are made and images perceived.
Based on Thomas Dixon's 1905 novel The Clansman, The Birth of a Nation begins as the South marches into battle to defend a way of life the North wants to eradicate. The second half finds a defeated South at the mercy of Northern carpetbaggers, vengeful Union politicians, and easily manipulated freed slaves. All that remains of the South's honor during Reconstruction is its virtuous women. Once this honor is threatened (by a "renegade negro"), the Ku Klux Klan is born, imposing order on chaos and releasing Southern whites from "under the heel" of blacks.
Most white audiences in 1915 love the film, paying an unprecedented $2 a ticket to see it. The recently formed NAACP, however, launches a crusade in the African American press against The Birth of a Nation, outraged by Griffith's "vicious" stereotyping of blacks. With riots erupting outside venues screening the film, the NAACP seeks injunctions (not always successfully) against these theaters, calling The Birth of a Nation a threat to public safety. The mayor of Chicago refuses to issue a permit to show the film, and a bill is introduced in the Illinois legislature banning artwork that "tends to incite race riot, or race hatred."
To counter The Birth of a Nation, African American filmmakers produce "race films" to provide more positive, realistic onscreen images of blacks. At the same time, the Klan uses the picture as a recruitment tool and experiences a revival directly attributed to the film. National membership peaks in 1920 at an estimated 4.5 million, and Griffith's heroic portrayal of the Klan allegedly inspires several lynchings.
Ultimately, The Birth of a Nation is banned in eight states, prompting Griffith to become an advocate for free speech in film. He does, however, make concessions to critics. As early as 1921, Griffith re-edits portions of The Birth of a Nation, at one point even deleting references to the KKK in deference to the NAACP.
After 1924, Griffith's work and reputation fall into decline. Unhappy working in the studio system he helped create, Griffith dies in 1948, after a 16-year absence from filmmaking. Today Griffith is hailed as Hollywood's first great artistic director, whose pioneering filmmaking spawned a new art form -- the feature-length film -- and the modern motion picture industry. In 1992, the National Film Preservation Board registers The Birth of a Nation on the basis of its "cultural, historical, and aesthetic importance," and in 1999, the American Film Institute ranks the film among the top 100 of the century. Both of these decisions, and related public showings of The Birth of a Nation, prompt protests.
In December 1999, the Directors Guild of America announces that D.W. Griffith will be retired as the namesake of its prestigious award for career achievement in moviemaking because he helped promote what they call "intolerable racial stereotypes." Although Guild members acknowledge his achievements, the vote to rename the award is unanimous.
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