Still from the film used within 'The Clansman' novel, 1915 - The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan – Photo courtesy of Wikimedia
CAIRO – 8 February 2018: On this day in history, one of the most controversial films yet technically important, was released; 1915's silent historical American epic ”The Birth of a Nation” by director D.W Griffith.
It is a horrifically racist movie, glorifying the Klu Klux Klan and encouraging real-life hate crimes. Yet it is also a groundbreaking work, the first of its kind ever to have been filmed with a cast of nearly 20,000 people and meticulously recreated events of American history, including the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War and its aftermath and the founding of the Klu Klux Klan, erroneously portrayed as noble heroes. Nothing on this scale has ever been produced before.
Originally titled ”The Clansman”, it was renamed to fit the grander scope at its March 3 premiere in New York. The movie was an adaptation of a stage play/novel of the same name, written by North Carolina Reverend Thomas Dixon Jr. in 1905. The film continued the play's hideously bigoted, anti-black message, but this time eventually reaching an audience of well over five million people by the time the film premiered.
It was known as the first blockbuster, and indeed, America's first feature-length motion picture. Its storyline follows two white families, one from the North and one from the South. The families were on friendly terms but find themselves at odds with the outbreak of the Civil War. It is, at its core, an interpersonal story that weaves into the epic.
Griffith originally aspired to be an actor or novelist, but found his true calling in the director's seat. He was the son of an ex-confederate soldier, and thus the subject matter of the film was somewhat familiar to him.
The budget for “The Clansman” originally started off at $40,000, but eventually grew to a monstrous cost of $100,000. At the time, tickets for the film were also highly priced, a whopping $2 each, when film tickets were usually sold for less than a dime. Yet the three-hour behemoth of a film was clearly seen as worth the money, given that it would earn an unbelievable $18 million in its first few years. Most of the African-American actors in the film were portrayed by white actors in blackface, further cementing the racist heart of the movie.
“The Birth of a Nation” could aptly be retitled ”The Birth of Cinema”; no other film in the history of the medium had managed to pioneer so many important techniques. In the film's six years of production, Griffith had managed to single-handily transform films from mostly static affairs, shot like stage plays, into something energetic and dynamic. His camera followed the actors; Griffith had pioneered the close-up, he weaved shots into sequences.
It even utilized color at the very end. Above all, Griffith transformed the medium of film into something that could tell a powerful, sprawling narrative.According to TIME, critic James Agee remarks that, in his own words, Griffith had aspired to "Above all… Make audiences see."
They saw his lies as well. Perhaps the greatest sin of “The Birth of a Nation” lies in how technically developed it is. Its historical inaccuracies, the glorification of the Klan and negative portrayal of slaves fighting back flew over the heads of audiences, who were mostly unaware of the real facts behind the events of the Civil War's aftermath. All too eager to swallow the lies of a pretty picture, hate crimes against African-Americans rose. The Klu Klux Klan used the film as a recruitment tool, a practice reportedly still in use to this day.
Backlash against the film's racist content was immediate. Riots had broken out at several locations of the film's premieres in the North, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had attempted to get the film banned or at least censored. These efforts failed simply because racism, at the time, was not seen by Hollywood as an issue worth considering.
”The Birth of a Nation” would be remade a century later in 2016 by director Nate Parker, an African-American, this time telling the story from the perspective of the slaves that had been so maligned in the original. Unfortunately, the film was a failure commercially, and controversy over director Parker's previous sexual assault allegations did not help its reputation.
Nowadays, the debate over the original film continues. Questions such as if the movie's racist message can or even should be divorced from its incredible achievements are still discussed, with no easy answer to be seen.