When I first committed to this project (over a year ago), I remember looking over the list and being excited. So many amazing films to watch and have an opportunity to learn more about. I would be lying to you, dear readers, if I said I had been looking forward to todays selection. I was interested to learn more about it as most my knowledge came from film history books that make special mention of the film, but never really went into detail. I knew it was a silent film and that is was controversial due to the director interpretation of history, however I was not aware that the run time of the film is 3+ hours. The thought crossed my mind to Youtube a few clips and write it up, but that wasn’t the point of me doing this project. While it’s still not a film I would watch (ever) again, it’s inclusion on the Top 100 is evident for many reasons, mostly due to it’s technical achievements.
The Birth of a Nation was directed by D. W. Griffith. Up to the time he directed the movie, he had been active in a variety of artistic endeavors. He was a playwright, actor, producer, and director. He had directed a handful of “one reel” (shorts) about the Civil War before taking on The Birth of a Nation. Up until this film, most movies were short (under an hour) for it was thought anything much longer wouldn’t be appealing to the audience and would hurt their eyes. Griffith, out of genius or madness, set out to change the landscape of film history. Using the source material of The Clansman, a novel turned play by T. F. Dixon, Jr., as inspiration, Griffith created the first feature length epic. The film is split into two parts: Pre-Civil War America and Reconstruction. When originally presented in theaters, the two parts were split by an intermission and it took 12 reels from start to finish.
The story is that of two families (one Northern and one Southern) as they deal with the terrible consequences of war and the challenges afterward. The film is mostly remembered for it’s use of racial stereotypes for it’s African American characters as well as a very ‘Southern’ view toward the Reconstruction period. When watching the film, you can’t help but be a little off put by the white actors in black face. It doesn’t help that in some of the scenes they use African Americans, but when a scene calls for close interaction with a white character (specifically women) they use a white male in black face. Even for a female housekeeper, a white male in black face portrays the character. During the second part of the film, the white characters are shown to be downtrodden and oppressed due to the new rules from the North. It is used to justify the creation of the Ku Klux Klan and even makes them out to be heroic. It is this bit of ‘historical interpretation’ that helped cause the film to be considered controversial.
When it was set to be released, it was met with resistance from the NAACP. Their attempts to get the film banned happened in some cities (most notably Chicago, Denver, and Pittsburgh), but didn’t stop it from being released all together. The film was a huge success upon it’s release and with it’s success saw a response that film had yet to see. On one side of the coin, it had become first “blockbuster” film. It was the most successful film of the time bringing in millions of dollars (the exact amount still unsure), which was no easy feat. For Film history, it was a turning point. It would become the example that others would try to follow. For American history, it is not to be as well remembered. White audiences (particularly Southerners) became enraged by the film. It stirred up feelings that had long been under the surface, just mostly ignored. Riots had broken out and gangs of whites went after blacks. There was even a murder of a black teenager by a white man attributed to the film.
Possibly the worst thing to come from the film was the reestablishment of the Ku Klux Klan. Originally established in the 1860s, the organization stayed around for a decade before being abolished for a variety of reasons. With the popularity of the book and movie, a “Second” formation of the Klan happened. In a twist of life imitating art, some of the aspects of the Klan in the film were adopted by the second Klan. The burning cross, something falsely attributed to the first Klan, was featured in the book and film. William J. Simmons, the founder of the second Klan, took the symbol and introduced it at the first meeting on Stone Mountain.
Despite it’s undeniable Southern sympathies, Griffith felt it was a film portraying the events as they happened. Among the outcry of racism, he purposefully geared his next film (Intolerance) to answer them back. Despite his attempt, the film wasn’t nearly the success that The Birth of a Nation was. Nothing he would do would ever get close to the success that The Birth of a Nation did.
When taking up this challenge of the Top 100, I was doing it because I knew there would be some films that would truly challenge me. This film has been the most difficult to watch and research. The length and subject matter make the film hard to sit through. What really took me off guard was reading how the film inspired a second Klan to form. I had always thought the Klan was around when the film came out and only strengthened but to know this film had a direct impact on the formation of the group is truly scary. Sometimes I think the power of film is forgotten. Film, especially in it’s early days, was a new way to speak to a mass audience. Griffith, wither knowingly or not, set off a spark that would change both American and Film history.