Sunday, February 27, 2011

Taking a Look at D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

The game is afoot! After a lot of secondary reading and a peek in to the historical record I am beginning to formulate some questions concerning D. W. Griffith's 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation.

A few things are striking me as curiously glossed over in the literature on the film - things that I believe are worthy of further inquiry. Most scholars tend to reduce the controversy surrounding this film to racial conflict. In many ways, they are absolutely correct. The film's profoundly racist depiction of black people - whether they be boot-licking sycophants, buffoons, or lustful rapists - without question incited animosity among individual blacks, groups such as the NAACP, and progressive whites.

But connected to this racial conflict is the nagging problem of sectional animosities held over from the Civil War. Only 50 years removed from Appomattox, the war was still fresh in the memories of those who had lived through it. Further, the sons and daughters of the Civil War generation remained attached to sectional interpretations of the war's causes and consequences.

Many scholars would have you believe otherwise. Historians such as David Blight and others have insisted that the memory of the war had - by the twentieth century - been reduced to a mutual celebration of valor and fortitude.

Poppycock. It is becoming apparent to me that many white northern Americans in 1915 saw the Confederate cause as an traitorous abomination and a revolt against law and order. It seems quite logical that groups and individuals would condemn a film that celebrated Confederates as patriots and applauded extra-legal organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.

In fact - Union veterans' organizations such as the Grand Army of the Republic led the charge against the screening of The Birth of a Nation suggesting that is was "untrue to the facts of history, [did] gross injustice to prominent and patriotic men of Reconstruction times, [was] insulting to colored citizens, and [tended] to glorify mob law."

This is sectionalism pure and simple. Northerners had fought to suppress rebellion - celebrating it 50 years after the fact seemed distasteful at best. Of course, millions in the North flocked to see The Birth of a Nation - and many were surely amazed at the spectacle of this new medium. But they didn't necessarily agree with the film's message.

At any rate, being one who resolutely believes that sectionalism is a central component in the study of American conflict and American history writ large, I am going to pursue this line of reasoning and see where it takes me. My driving questions: to what degree did the contentions of the Civil War remain in the twentieth-century North? How did the war generation influence subsequent generations? In what ways did The Birth of a Nation fuel sectional fires? And finally, the real nugget...are racial conflicts and sectional conflicts interwoven in American history?

I guess we'll just have to see.



  1. Great post. It's worth remembering that just as the GAR opposed the film, the UCV and UDC rallied around it -- and its depiction of the Reconstruction-era Klan -- just as much, if not more-so. Special screenings of the film were held in conjunction with veterans' reunions, and it received glowing praise from the Confederate Veteran magazine:

    Every visitor to Birmingham during the Reunion will have an opportunity to see the wonderful picture drama, "The Birth of a Nation," which will be shown there all during Reunion week. None should fail to see it for its great historical value. In its many scenes of beauty and pathos we live again the days of the South's glory and humiliation and final resurrection through the strength of a manhood which would not submit to tyranny.
    Nor were contributors to the Confederate Veteran remotely shy about using the film to heap praise on the Klan itself:
    The wonderful photo play entitled "The Birth of a Nation," which portrays so vividly the Ku-Klux Klan, has done more in a few months' time to arouse interest in that organization than all the articles written on the subject during the last forty years. We have been told that "the pen is mightier than the sword"; but it seems that the silent language of the photo drama has proved more powerful than all else in bringing about a realization of "things as they were" during Reconstruction in the South, the era immediately following the War between the States. Those pictured scenes in "The Birth of a Nation" have, like a flame of fire, burned into the hearts of men and women and left an impression stamped too deep ever to be eradicated. And so the presentation of this great play has accomplished untold good, for people are now beginning to understand the terrible conditions existing in the South during Reconstruction which made the Ku-Klux Klan a necessity. People everywhere are now seeking the true history of the Klan,' its origin, objects, and mission, and the South should be prepared to furnish these facts while the information is being so eagerly sought.

    The question has been asked: "Does not 'The Birth of a Nation' exaggerate? Does it present conditions as they really were?" Only those who lived through Reconstruction days can answer that question, and the answer has been given by a devoted woman of the Confederacy who, after seeing the play, remarked: "It does not tell half enough of the horrors of those dark days." Reconstruction is a word that can hardly be spoken even yet without a thrill of terror by those who were witnesses of those scenes and came under the dark cloud that enveloped the Southland during "reconstruction," or, rather, "destruction," which has been suggested by an eminent Southern writer as a more appropriate term. All seemed blackness and despair until the Ku-Klux Klan appeared upon the scene, bringing a ray of hope and affording relief from a situation which threatened greater horrors than the war itself. Does not the Southland owe a debt of gratitude to the brave men who composed that organization and who rode side by side with death during the darkest hour in the South's history to redeem the land from carpetbag and negro rule? The only way to pay that debt is to vindicate completely those heroes before the world by producing the facts and placing them before our boys and girls of to-day, who will be our citizens of to-morrow and at the head of State and national affairs."Sectionalism" somehow doesn't quite go far enough, does it?

  2. However, it was possible for many northerners to separate the War from Reconstruction, and to sympathize with the southern view of events from 1865-1877. Dixon's plays, and BoaN were both popular in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and other northern cities, despite the GAR and NAACP's campaigns.

  3. Yes - it was popular...but that doesn't mean that northerners necessarily agreed with the film's message. NY times and other reviewers (apart from the GAR and NAACP) were appalled by the film. This I believe a reflection of at least some of the people who flocked to the film. Remember - film was a new medium...and many went for the spectacle of the whole thing.

  4. Yes, but if you look at all the reviews, many were very positive. And you make a good point about the spectacle, but still BoaN played for a year in some theaters. Schools sent students to see the film as a history lesson.

    Don't forget that the film praised Lincoln and showed the southern Camerons mourning his death, something that would appeal to northern audiences. The film did a very good job in separating the interests of white northerners from southern African-Americans. Consider, for example, the climatic scene where Union and Confederate veterans alike fight side by side against "rampaging" blacks.

    I am interested in reading more about the GAR's reaction. Can you suggest any articles?

  5. that is a great scene, I believe meant to convey reconciliation in ways the David Blight suggests. And while I a familiar with some of the positive reviews, I am not sold that Union soldiers would have reacted such a way. On the GAR, I have a few peices of evidence on the film from GAR members - if you send me a note to and will forward them to you.