David Wark (D.W.) Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) is perhaps the most influential film in the history of American cinema. Griffith’s film is an epic demonstration of the developing “language” of cinema, so assured and complete that in some ways films have changed very little in the ninety years since The Birth of a Nation’s release. In terms of its sheer length and scale—the film is three hours long and features a cast of hundreds—The Birth of a Nation far surpassed all earlier films, changing forever a medium in which viewers were accustomed to seeing one- or two-reel films of between fifteen and thirty minutes. In creating this film, Griffith essentially invented the concept of the feature motion picture.
Yet, for the film industry, Griffith’s masterpiece is both a source of pride and a mark of shame, because The Birth of a Nation is explicitly and brutally racist. Griffith blames the entirety of America’s problems from before the Civil War to the film’s present on African Americans, citing then-president Woodrow Wilson’s writings in A History of the American People for academic support. From beginning to end, the film is pervaded by the belief that African Americans are less human than Anglo-Americans. In this respect, the film has no gray area: the Ku Klux Klan members are the heroes, appropriating the concepts of honor and nobility to suit their racist ends. The challenge for viewers and film historians alike has been how to approach this film that combines such stunning and innovative artistry with such noxious political and moral ideas. Often, film historians portray the golden age of early cinema with nostalgia, so the blatant racism in this landmark film often comes as a shock to students of film when they first encounter it. Above all, students are left wondering about the nature of this gifted producer and director who seems to be so forward-looking and so backward at the same time.
Born in 1875 on a rural Kentucky farm, Griffith was the sixth of seven children of a cantankerous Confederate Army war hero, Jacob “Roaring Jake” Griffith. Having grown up poor, Griffith forewent a complete education to help his family make ends meet. Nonetheless, he read widely, immersing himself in a romantic vision of the prewar South, aided in part by the nostalgic stories of bitter relatives who were hampered by Reconstruction-era policies. Griffith, having fallen in love with Victorian authors and the work of the great Romantic Sir Walter Scott, who glorified the values of nobility and chivalry, decided to become a writer himself. After assisting his family, Griffith kicked around the country as a bit actor, living in squalor and working odd jobs. His tall, strong, good looks helped him win parts, despite his lack of training as an actor. During his acting career, Griffith dreamed of becoming a playwright rather than a filmmaker. To his mind (and for much of the public at the time) films were the lowest form of entertainment—and they certainly weren’t art. Nickelodeons—the earliest movie theaters—were generally associated with the grubby alleys where recent immigrants were forced to live. Racists and city-fearers thought of films as subhuman, cheap entertainment. Griffith’s attitude toward film eventually underwent a complete revolution, but this change took place only gradually.
At age thirty, with only a few successes behind him and a new stage-actress wife, Linda Arvidson, to support, Griffith took a job acting in a two-reel film at Thomas Edison’s studios. He had tried sell a script to Edison and been rejected, but the studio’s director hired him as an actor because of his good looks. Later, Griffith tried to sell a script to the rival studio American Mutoscope & Biograph Company, and met with the same result—the studio rejected his script but hired him as an actor based on his appearance. When Griffith began work at Biograph, the studio was in dire straits, deep in debt and hard-pressed to meet the public’s demand for new films. Griffith was soon able to obtain a position as a director because of his work ethic and evident facility with the new medium. In June 1908, Griffith directed his first short, The Adventures of Dollie, earning a weekly base salary of $50 plus commission as stipulated by his director’s contract. . Thereafter, he churned out one- and two-reelers at a phenomenal rate. By 1913, Griffith had directed at least 450 one- and two-reelers for Biograph, saving the company from financial ruin. During those years, through trial and error, he formulated a directing style that made him one of cinema’s first auteurs. Throughout this time, he pushed constantly for longer films with more complex stories.
Griffith lost his directorial position with Biograph after directing his longest and most expensive film, 1913’s Judith of Bethulia, an epic spectacle far more ambitious than any previous American film. But the merger of two film companies, Mutual and Reliance-Majestic, opened up a position with more responsibility for Griffith in the developing California film industry based in Hollywood. Griffith left New York’s Biograph with a splash. At the time, short films carried no directorial credits, so few outside the industry knew of Griffith. Griffith rectified the situation by buying a full-page ad in the New York Dramatic Mirror listing over 150 of the films he had directed, declaring himself a genius in the new medium.
Eventually, Griffith and film producer Harry Aitken created a new company, Epoch, solely for the production and distribution of their newest project, The Birth of a Nation. The film represented a turning point both in Griffith’s directorial career and in cinema. Most of the shooting was done in secret with no complete script, and the film cost eleven times more than any conventional film produced thus far. Griffith gambled his life savings on the project, as well as much of his friends’ money. Based on the play The Clansman by the Reverend Thomas Dixon, a Baptist minister in North Carolina, The Birth of a Nation interwove complex narratives with fifteen times as many shots as the longest films from that era. The Birth of a Nation took fifteen weeks to rehearse and shoot and three months to edit, whereas just a few years earlier, Griffith was cranking out at least one film a week.
The film’s public opening in New York was a colossal publicity event. Times Square’s Liberty Theater charged $2 per ticket (an exorbitant price at the time), and huge billboards of Klan nightriders welcomed special trains that brought in patrons for the screening. President and historian Woodrow Wilson, an old Princeton classmate of Dixon’s, endorsed The Birth of a Nation, and it became the first film screened in the White House. The film contributed to the revival of a much stronger, more modern Ku Klux Klan, which had effectively dissolved in 1869. The Birth of a Nation toured the world, meeting with riots and protests in some cities, while some states prohibited screenings. The film’s first run brought in over $10 million, and while its box office total has never been precisely tabulated, The Birth of a Nation clearly held the world record for over two decades. The NAACP, having formed only in 1909, mobilized its forces in protests and pointed letter-writing campaigns. They were assisted by prominent liberals, such as activist Jane Addams, as well as by several Ivy League presidents. Indeed, protestors succeeded in forcing two of the most atrocious scenes to be cut. The film touched a nerve, splitting America apart by tapping into deep wounds that had never healed and exposing unspoken prejudices to a surprising extent. It also shocked the film industry, which was certain that Griffith’s financial excess would be greeted with box-office disaster.