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Reactions to The Birth of a Nation

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Mohammad A. Mian

The Emergence of Modern America

It can be argued that no other film in American history has been as controversial as D.W. Griffith's silent epic film, The Birth of a Nation. The Birth of a Nation, which first premiered on February 8th, 1915, and was based on Thomas Dixon's novel and play The Clansmen.[1] The film is set in the American Civil War and the period of Reconstruction during the 19th century, and chronicles the lives of two families, the Stonemans and the Camerons.[2] The Stonemans are an abolitionist Unionist family from the North, whereas the Camerons are a Southern family loyal to the Confederate cause during the American Civil War.[3] Throughout The Birth of a Nation, African Americans are portrayed as being savages, violent thugs, sexual predators, ill mannered brutes, and ballot stuffers. For this reason, despite the film's positive reception among the American public and news outlets at the time of its release; The Birth of a Nation received a negative response from African Americans and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, both of which protested against the film's premiere across American cities. Despite the criticism, the film was defended by various news outlets and Griffith himself. Many contemporary film critics and historians regard The Birth of a Nation as America's first great cinematic feature, despite its controversial portrayal of African Americans.

The focal point of The Birth of a Nation are two juxtaposed families, the Stonemans and the Camerons. Members of the Stoneman household are Austin Stoneman, an American legislator and abolitionist, his sons Phil and Todd, and his daughter Elsie.[4] The Cameron family consists of Dr. Cameron, a Southern physician and staunch Confederate after the outbreak of the Civil War, his wife Mrs. Cameron, his two daughters, Margaret and Flora, and his three sons, Benjamin, Wade, and Duke.[5] At the beginning of the film, Phil and Todd visiting the Cameron family estate in South Carolina.[6] Upon immediately seeing Margaret, Phil falls in love with her, whereas Benjamin is awestruck by a picture of Elsie.[7] A few months later, the American Civil War erupts, and the Cameron sons enlist in the Confederate Army, while Phil and Todd uphold their loyalty to the Union by joining the army of general Ulysses S. Grant.[8] During the war, Black militiamen attack and ransack the Cameron estate, but the women of the household are saved by a Confederate contingent which routs the militia.[9] The portrayal of African American soldiers as brutes and savages strongly correlates with the stereotypical portrayal of Blacks the filmmakers envisioned. By the conclusion of the war, Todd, Wade, and Duke are killed in the conflict, while Benjamin is captured and taken to a hospital in Washington D.C.[10] At the hospital, Benjamin meets Elsie, with whom he develops a romantic relationship. The deaths of Todd, Wade, and Duke were emotionally appealed to the film's audience, many of whom likely lost relatives in the Civil War. During his stay at the hospital, Benjamin is informed that he is to be executed by hanging due his associations with the Confederate guerillas.[11] In order to seek a pardon for Benjamin, Elsie and Mrs. Stoneman meet with Abraham Lincoln, and both of them manage to convince the President to pardon him.[12] After President Lincoln's assassination, Austin Stoneman and his fellow republicans impose harsh measures on wealthy White Southerners, such as land confiscation, ushering in the Reconstruction period in American history.[13]

Austin Stoneman travels to the South Carolina to oversee the implementation of the reconstruction policies of the Republicans.[14] He is accompanied by a Mulatto governor, Silas Lynch.[15] Lynch is portrayed as having psychotic characteristics, a common stereotype of African Americans among White Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.[16] In the Southern cities visited by Stoneman and Lynch, African American soldiers are seen harassing Whites, while triumphantly parading on the streets.[17] In these particular scenes, Black militias are portrayed as being ill mannered and brutish in comparison to the naïve and gentle White Southerners.[18] During the regional elections, Whites are shown as being barred from voting, whereas African Americans cast multiple votes without any issue.[19] After the elections, the African Americans who are elected to South Carolina's legislature are portrayed as being ill mannered, as the film once again highlights seeks to portray them as being brutish.[20] Laws in favour of African Americans are also enacted, which require Whites to respect Black soldiers in their cities, and mixed marriages are also legalized.[21] All of these factors, culminate in Benjamin's founding of the Ku Klux Klan to counter the ever increasing power of African Americans in the South.[22]

After Elsie hears about the activities perpetrated by Benjamin's organization against African Americans in the South, she abruptly ends their relationship.[23] Meanwhile, Ben's sister, Flora commits suicide after being pursued by Gus, a Black freedman who seeks a romantic relationship with her.[24] Gus' incontrollable carnal desires are meant to portray him as a sexual predator, a common stereotype associated with African American men during the late 1800s and early to mid 1900s.[25] After personally witnessing his sister's demise, Benjamin has Gus lynched by his fellow Klan members, and places his corpse in front of Lynch's house.[26] Lynch immediately issues orders to suppress the activities of the Klan, and in the process Benjamin's father is arrested for being associated with the organization.[27] He is, however, ironically rescued by his loyal Black servants with Phil Stoneman's aid.[28] After hearing of the imprisonment of Mr. Cameron, Elsie attempts to convince Lynch to stop his crackdown on the Klan.[29] Lynch refuses and attempts to rape Elsie, but she is saved by Benjamin and other Klan members who also manage to capture Lynch.[30] The capture of Lynch by the Klan is meant to emphasize the heroicness of the Ku Klux Klan as defenders of White Americans, and stereotype African Americans as savages. In the following election day, Black voters are stopped from voting by members of the Ku Klux Klan, and Margaret and Phil, and Elsie and Benjamin are married.[31] The film concludes with the title "Dare we dream of a golden day when the bestial War shall rule no more? But instead - the gentle Prince in the Hall of Brotherly Love in the City of Peace."[32]

Following its release in 1915, The Birth of a Nation was praised by American film critics writing for various news outlets during the following few decades, without any mention of the film's racial stereotypes of African Americans. One notable review of the film is Seymour Stern's article "BIRTHDAY OF A CLASSIC: The Twentieth Anniversary of 'Birth of a Nation' Recalls Its Significance" in The New York Times, which was published on March 24th, 1935. Despite their being a twenty-year gap between the film's release and Stern's review, he reflected the view Americans had of the film upon its initial release. Stern wrote

It appeared twenty years ago as an unforeseen and unprecedented phenomenon in the old fashioned movie world of the day. With it the cinema became one stroke of art, and its first masterpiece was acclaimed by the critics. Simultaneously was once and for all delivered from the gaudy dominion of the vaude-ville show, which at the time had a stranglehold upon it-and David Wark Griffith entered into the long and magnificent reign as the kin of directors.[33]

Stern further praised the film's impressive photography by stating

The picture is so remarkable from such a variety of important aspects that it is not easy immediately to select any given one. Griffith introduced a multitude of technical innovations that have since become the part and parcel of filmcraft. Here for the first time he used night photography, self-focus photography, moving camera shots, lap dissolves, the split screen and acute camera angles. The low-angle shots of mounted clansmen looming over the frightened Negroes are unforgettable. His subtle use of the iris in this film marks the fruition of that device.[34]

From both of these statements, it is evident that Stern had high regard for the film. In fact, he had such high regard for the film that he described it as one which innovated and transformed the entire motion picture industry. Stern's review of the film also showcase the prejudiced White Americans had towards African Americans, as he did not once mention the film's controversial portrayal of Blacks as a hindrance to the film's visual magnificence.[35] Furthermore, Stern's referral to African Americans as Negroes further suggest that he largely agreed with their portrayal in the film, which is not surprising considering the fact that African Americans continued to be stereotyped in American media until after the Second World War. While Stern had nothing but praise for the film, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People protested against the film, as did African American veterans of the First World War.

In the year of and years following The Birth of a Nation's release, many African Americans protested against its release in theatres. While the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People opposed the film immediately upon its initial release, they did not take direct court action against it until after the First World War. The NAACP launched its court case against the film in the State of New York in 1921, and it was covered by The New York Times in an article titled "FOES OF KLAN FIGHT 'BIRTH OF A NATION: Ask Motion Picture Board to Forbid Revival Here-Griffith and Dixon Defend Film." The article, published on December 3rd, 1922, stated

Demands that a revival showing of "The Birth of a Nation" be prohibited in this state as a "glorification of the Klu Klux Klan and part of a local drive by Rev. Oscar Haywood to increase membership of the Klan were made yesterday at a hearing before the motion picture commission of the State of New York by Walter F. White, Assistant Executive Secretary for the Advancement of Colored People; Henry W. Shields, Senator Elect from the 21st District; and Alderman George W. Harris.[36]

The NAACP's protests were carried out against a rescreening of the film in the State of New York in 1921.[37] Many of those involved were influential members of the African American community, and they were displeased by their portrayal in the film.[38] Eventually the protest resulted in a court case against the film, in which D.W. Griffith was also present.[39] Unfortunately for the NAACP, the judge of the case ruled in favour of the film's screening by stating that it did not, in any way, promote the Ku Klux Klan, but rather, was a reflection of post-Civil War America.[40] The protests showcased the racial tensions present in the United States during the early 20th century, and they also reflected upon the desire of African Americans to see the film have its theatre permits revoked. For many African Americans, the film added to their negative image among many White Americans, an image which they sought eradicate. To make matters worse, the judicial authorities did not support the pleas of the NAACP. However, opposition to the film existed even before the official involvement of the NAACP, as in May 1921, African American war veterans protested against the film's screening in front of the Capitol Theatre in New York.[41]

In May 1921, African American veterans of the First World War and their wives protested against the screening of The Birth of a Nation in Capitol Theatre in New York. On May 21st, 1921, "Negroes Oppose Film" was published in The New York Times, and it covered these protests. The article reflected the opinions of the war veterans on the film by stating

Negro ex-servicemen in uniform, flanked by negro women, gathered in front of the Capital to protest against the revival of "The Birth of a Nation." Some of the pickets carried placards which read "We represented America in France, why should 'The Birth of a Nation' misrepresent us here?" Others distributed circulars published by the Nation Association for the Advancement of Colored People which demanded, "Stop the Klu Klux Klan propaganda in New York."[42]

Ultimately, these protests did not result in a victory for the picketers, as five of their organizers were arrested by the police, including three women, although, they would all be released within a few days.[43] The failure of the protests evidenced the lack of regard the American political establishment had for African American war veterans and the stereotypical portrayal of their community in the film. In fact, D.W. Griffith continued to defend the film, and after the May protests, he was quoted by The New York Times as saying

It is a source of regret to me that purely advised people are endeavoring to stir up animosity against 'The Birth of a Nation.' The opposition is misguided, and was misproven and laid away many years ago. The leading villain in the story is a white man, who leads a misguided following into conflicts which do not reflect upon the negro. It there were the slightest ground for protest against the film it seems to me that white men would have claim to it than negroes. I shall be quite willing, however, to submit the matter under oath to the consideration of the court.[44]

Griffith's comments are not surprising considering the popular attitude towards African Americans at the time. However, his assertion that African Americans were not the leading villains in the film has no justifiable ground considering the film's stereotypical portrayal of them. It is also interesting to note that Griffith was open to take the matter to court. Considering the lack of regard American courts had for African Americans at the time, this is also not surprising. The lack of sympathy for African Americans among American courts is further evidenced by lack of intervention by federal courts against the film. For this reason, despite a ban on the film in three states and a few cities upon its initial release in 1915, it seemed that the film would continue to be screened in American theatres due to its popularity among the White populace.[45] Indeed, the NAACP continued to protest against the film up to the 1950s, as the film was continuously revived in American theatres.

In 1950, picketers rallied against the revival of The Birth of a Nation outside the Beverly Theatre at 823 Third Avenue.[46] The protesters were upset the controversial film was being screened in the New York once again, despite it being 35 years since its initial release. The President of the NAACP's branch in New York, Lindsey H. White, led the protests, which was covered by The New York Times' article "FILM REVIVAL PROTESTED: N.A.A.C.P. Pickets 'Birth of a Nation' at Beverly Theatre".[47] According to the article

The revival of D.W. Griffith's silent-film classic "The Birth of a Nation," was protested yesterday by Lindsey H. White, president of the New York branch, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Mr. White stated that the film, now being shown at the Beverly Theatre, 823 Third Avenue, "distorts the historical truths of Negro and White in the reconstruction governments that were set up in various at the close of the Civil War." The NAACP has been picketing at the theatre since Saturday.[48]

The article reflects upon the frustration among African Americans to have the film's screening in the Beverly Theatre stopped. It also showcases that while it had been three decades since the film's release, American attitudes towards the film's content largely remained the same. Despite this, the popularity of the film had largely declined, as Americans became more interested in the Western genre of films in the 1950s and 1960s. With the decline of the film, it has become common knowledge that the film is no longer as popular, nor as widely viewed as it once was since the 1970s. For contemporary film historians from the 1990s onwards, the film is still regarded as one which transformed the American film industry.

Perhaps no lines from a contemporary critic's review of The Birth of a Nation better capture the film's legacy on American cinema than these from Molly Haskell's article "In 'The Birth of a Nation,': The Birth of Serious Film" in The New York Times

The defining moment for the motion picture as a mass medium, an art form and a disturbingly powerful social force occurred on a bitterly cold night on March 3, 1915, at the Liberty Theatre in New York. It was the world premiere of D.W. Griffiths' "The Birth of a Nation," an event of such cultural magnitude that 80 years later, controversies still rage about the film among film scholars about its racially charged images.[49]

Throughout her review, Molly praises the film for its ground-breaking innovations, vivid, imagery, and ability to keep an audience engaged, which is remarkable for a film 2 hour and 40 minutes long silent film produced in the early 20th century.[50] She is, however, critical of the film's content, especially its negative portrayal of African Americans, as she does not agree with their stereotypical mannerisms in the film.[51] Nevertheless, she concludes her review by stating "In Griffith's masterpiece sublimity of expressed was marred by melodramatic racism. Yet "The Birth of a Nation," warts and all, remains a milestone: the movie that catapulted the medium from its 19th-century peep-show origins into its status as the great new art form of the 20th century."[52] Thus, it can be said that, while The Birth of a Nation remains a controversial film among, there is no doubt it transformed the film industry into a corporate giant.

Upon its initial release in 1915, The Birth of a Nation was positively received by the American public and news outlets alike. However, the film was staunchly opposed by Africans Americans for its stereotypical portrayal of their community. Furthermore, the film reflected the tensions which existed between African Americans and White Americans from the late 19th to mid 20th century. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples was at the forefront of the opposition to the film, and remained so until the 1950s, after which the film declined in popularity. Almost all film historians agree that the film innovated the American film industry. However, they have criticized the film for its discriminatory portrayal of African Americans.

Bibliography

Films

Griffith, D.W. The Birth of a Nation. 12 Reel Film. Directed by D.W. Griffith. New York: Epoch

Producing Co., 1915.

Primary Sources

"DEFENDS FILM PRODUCTION: Griffith Says He Regrets Complaint Against 'Birth of a Nation.'"

The New York Times, May 9th, 1921. Accessed March 20th, 2017.

<http://myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/98323846?accountid=14771.>

"FILM REVIVAL PROTESTED: N.A.A.C.P. Pickets 'Birth of a Nation' at Beverly Theatre." The New

York Times, May 19th, 1950. Accessed March 20th, 2017. <http://myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/111709644?accountid=14771>

"FOES OF KLAN FIGHT 'BIRTH OF A NATION': Ask Motion Picture Board to Forbid Revival Here-

Griffith and Dixon Defend Film." The New York Times, December 3rd, 1922. Accessed March 20th, 2017. <http://myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/98821328?accoutid=14771.>

"NEGRO PICKETS IN COURT: Decision Reserved on Protest Against Film "The Birth of a

Nation." The New York Times, May 10th, 1921. Accessed March 21st.

<http://myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/98457242?accountid=14771.>

"NEGROES OPPOSE FILM: Ex-Service Men Say "Birth of a Nation" Misrepresents Them." The New

York Times, May 7th, 1921. Accessed March 20th. <http://myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/98365700?accountid=14771.>

Haskell, Molly. "In 'The Birth of a Nation,' The Birth of Serious Film." The New York Times, November

20th, 1995. Accessed March 21st, 2017. <http://myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/109522183?accountid=14771>

Stern, Seymour. "BIRTHDAY OF A CLASSIC.: The Twentieth Anniversary of 'Birth of a Nation'

Recalls Its Significance." The New York Times, Mar 24, 1935. Accessed March 20th, 2017. <http://myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/101539844?accountid=14771.>

Secondary Sources

Christensen, Terry. Reel Politics, American Political Movies from Birth of a Nation to Platoon. New

York: Basil Blackwell Inc, 1987.


[1] D.W. Griffith. The Birth of a Nation. 12 Reel Film. Directed by D.W. Griffith (New York: Epoch

Producing Co., 1915). Film.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] D.W. Griffith. The Birth of a Nation. 12 Reel Film. Directed by D.W. Griffith. Film.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] D.W. Griffith. The Birth of a Nation. 12 Reel Film. Directed by D.W. Griffith. Film.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] D.W. Griffith. The Birth of a Nation. 12 Reel Film. Directed by D.W. Griffith. Film.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Seymour Stern. "BIRTHDAY OF A CLASSIC.: The Twentieth Anniversary of 'Birth of a Nation' Recalls Its Significance." (The New York Times, Mar 24, 1935), X4.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Seymour Stern. "BIRTHDAY OF A CLASSIC.: The Twentieth Anniversary of 'Birth of a Nation' Recalls Its Significance.", X4.

[36] "FOES OF KLAN FIGHT 'BIRTH OF A NATION': Ask Motion Picture Board to Forbid Revival Here-Griffith and Dixon Defend Film." (The New York Times, December 3rd, 1922), 29.

[37] Ibid.

[38]  "FOES OF KLAN FIGHT 'BIRTH OF A NATION': Ask Motion Picture Board to Forbid Revival Here-Griffith and Dixon Defend Film.", 29.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] "NEGROES OPPOSE FILM: Ex-Service Men Say "Birth of a Nation" Misrepresents Them." (The New

York Times, May 7th, 1921), 8.

[42] Ibid.

[43] "NEGRO PICKETS IN COURT: Decision Reserved on Protest Against Film "The Birth of a

Nation." (The New York Times, May 10th, 1921), 6.

[44] "DEFENDS FILM PRODUCTION: Griffith Says He Regrets Complaint Against 'Birth of a Nation.'" (The New York Times, May 9th, 1921), 11.

[45] Terry Christensen. Reel Politics, American Political Movies from Birth of a Nation to Platoon (New York: Basil Blackwell Inc, 1987), 19.

[46] "FILM REVIVAL PROTESTED: N.A.A.C.P. Pickets 'Birth of a Nation' at Beverly Theatre." (The New

York Times, May 19th, 1950), 25.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Molly Haskell. "In 'The Birth of a Nation,' The Birth of Serious Film"." (The New York Times, November

20th, 1995), D5.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.


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