On February 8, 1915, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a landmark film in the history of cinema, premieres at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles. The film was America’s first feature-length motion picture and a box-office smash, and during its unprecedented three hours Griffith popularized countless filmmaking techniques that remain central to the art today. However, because of its explicit racism, Birth of a Nation is also regarded as one of the most offensive films ever made.
Actually titled The Clansman for its first month of release, the film provides a highly subjective history of the Civil War, Reconstruction and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Studied today as a masterpiece of political propaganda, Birth of a Nation caused riots in several cities and was banned in others but was seen by millions.
David Wark Griffith was born in La Grange, Kentucky, in 1875, the son of an ex-Confederate colonel. His father died when he was seven, and he later dropped out of high school to help support his family. After holding various jobs, he began a successful career as a theater actor. He wrote several plays and, on the advice of a colleague, sent some scenarios for one-reel films to the Edison Film Company and the Biograph Company. In 1908, he was hired as an actor and writer for the Biograph studio and soon was promoted to a position as director.
Between 1908 and 1913, Griffith made more than 400 short films for Biograph. With the assistance of his talented cinematographer, G W. “Billy” Bitzer, he invented or refined such important cinematic techniques as the close-up, the scenic long shot, the moving-camera shot and the fade-in and fade-out. His contributions to the art of editing during this period include the flashback and parallel editing, in which two or more separate scenes are intermixed to give the impression that the separate actions are happening simultaneously. He also raised the standard on movie acting, initiating scene rehearsals before shooting and assembling a stock company of film professionals. Many of these actors, including Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mary Pickford, Mae Marsh and Lionel Barrymore, went on to become some of Hollywood’s first movie stars.
Taking his cue from the longer spectacle films produced in Italy, in 1913 Griffith produced Judith of Bethulia, a biblical adaptation that, at four reels, was close to an hour long. It was his last Biograph film. Two years later, he released his 10-reel film, Birth of a Nation, for Mutual Films.
Birth of a Nation, based on Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman, tells the turbulent story of American history in the 1860s, as it followed the fictional lives of two families from the North and the South. Throughout its three hours, African Americans are portrayed as brutish, lazy, morally degenerate and dangerous. In the film’s climax, the Ku Klux Klan rises up to save the South from the Reconstruction Era-prominence of African Americans in Southern public life.
Riots and protests broke out at screenings of Birth of a Nation in a number of Northern cities, and the recently formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) embarked on a major campaign to have the film banned. It eventually was censored in several cities, and Griffith agreed to change or cut out some of the film’s especially offensive scenes.
Nevertheless, millions of people paid to witness the spectacle of Birth of a Nation, which featured a cast of more 10,000 people and a dramatic story line far more sophisticated than anything released to that date. For all the gross historical inaccuracies, certain scenes, such as meetings of Congress, Civil War battles, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, were meticulously recreated, lending the film an air of legitimacy that made it so effective as propaganda.
The Ku Klux Klan, suppressed by the federal government in the 1870s, was re-founded in Georgia in December 1915 by William J. Simmons. In addition to being anti-Black, the new Klan was anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant, and by the early 1920s it had spread throughout the North as well as the South. At the peak of its strength in 1924, membership in the KKK is estimated to have been as high as three million. There is no doubt that Birth of a Nation played no small part in winning wide public acceptance for an organization that was originally founded as an anti-Black and anti-federal terrorist group.
Of Griffith’s later films, Intolerance (1916) is the most important. Hailed by many as the finest achievement of the silent-film era, it pursues four story lines simultaneously, which cumulatively act to prove humanity’s propensity for persecution. Some regard it as an effort at atonement by Griffith for Birth of a Nation, while others believe he meant it as an answer to those who persecuted him for his political views. Intolerance was a commercial failure but had a significant influence on the development of film art.
Griffith went on to make 27 more films. In 1919, he founded United Artists with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin.
Before D. W. Griffith’s time, motion pictures were short, uninspiring, and poorly produced, acted and edited. Under his guidance, filmmaking became an art form. Despite the harm his Birth of a Nation inflicted on African Americans, he will forever be regarded as the father of cinema.