D. W. Griffith movie The Birth of a Nation remains one of American cinema‘s most important pictures. The sheer number of groundbreaking techniques it utilised, from close-ups to set construction to consistent orchestration to the use of exorbitant budgets, makes it a landmark film feature in the evolution of movies. But despite its trailblazing features, The Birth of a Nation can’t rise above its main legacy as one of the propagators of a new wave of racism and violence in the United States.
The question of whether The Birth of a Nation is an inherently racist film is pretty simple: it unequivocally is. The way Griffith depicts African-Americans and the Ku Klux Klan is impossible to interpret in any other way. Whether Griffith or author Thomas Dixon, whose book The Clansman served as the original text, want to claim detached neutrality or not does nothing to counteract the abhorrent characterisations that make up the second half of the movie. Once the film moves to its ‘Reconstruction’ section, the calls for Aryan unity and the use of actors in exaggerated blackface has no defence.
It’s not as though the film took on a negative reputation after years of criticism and challenges. Contemporary reviews pointed out the extremeness of Griffith’s depiction, and the NAACP set up protests of the film in multiple cities across the US. Feeling an immediate backlash was imminent, Griffith and Dixon hatched a plan to counteract the calls for boycotting: they were going to get approval from the very top.
Ten days after the film’s premiere in February 1915, Griffith and Dixon brought the film to Washington D.C. and screened the film for President Woodrow Wilson in the East Room of the White House. Wilson had gone to college with Dixon and the two had crossed paths a number of times before The Birth of a Nation.
There remains debate as to whether Wilson knew about the film’s subject matter and whether he enjoyed the film or not. Wilson gave no personal endorsement, but his claim of ignorance regarding the film and its message, considering the notoriety that Dixon’s original book and the use of Wilson’s quotes within the film, make it unlikely for Wilson to be completely in the dark about the film and its content. Griffith and Dixon, nonetheless, used the screening as a way to legitimise the film against its condemnations.
With the large press coverage around the film’s screening at the White House, Griffith and Dixon went about denouncing the NAACP. Accusing the organisation of pushing interracial marriage, Griffith and Dixon made themselves the victims and claimed that those being critical of the picture were bigoted themselves. Griffith was so aggrieved at the detractors that he explicitly based his next film, Intolerance, off of the reaction.
As The Birth of a Nation continued to be dissected for its breakthroughs in filmmaking, the central message of its narrative began to overshadow even the most admirable qualities of its construction. Still, the influence of Griffith’s techniques couldn’t be denied. The Birth of a Nation was a high watermark in cinema, and it helped usher in the modern style of film that continues to be referenced today.
Look no further than the word of America’s greatest film critic, Roger Ebert, to contextualise the complicated place The Brith of a Nation still has in film history: “Those evolved enough to understand what they are looking at find the early and wartime scenes brilliant, but cringe during the postwar and Reconstruction scenes, which are racist in the ham-handed way of an old minstrel show or a vile comic pamphlet… The Birth of a Nation is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil.”