The explicit racism of The Birth of a Nation provoked massive responses from individuals and organizations across the country. Early on in the film’s yearlong New York City run, the NAACP succeeded in pressuring Griffith to cut a few of the most objectionable scenes. One of these scenes portrays black men as savages possessed by animalistic lust, sexually assaulting white women. Another depicts Gus’s castration, his punishment for lusting after a white woman. The other excised element was a coda proffering the one and only solution to America’s strife: to deport all black Americans back to Africa. The NAACP mobilized protests even before production on the film was complete. The Los Angeles branch called for the film to be banned in the city. Picket lines faithfully formed daily in New York City, but the film still raked in enormous profits at the box office, using reserved seating instead of general admission to create an “event” atmosphere around the release. Soon after the film’s premiere, activist Jane Addams released an interview in New York newspapers in which she vehemently protested the portrayal of African Americans in The Birth of a Nation.
While the entire film condemns African Americans and valorizes the Ku Klux Klan, certain scenes stand out for their egregiously insulting portrayals of African Americans. For example, black representatives meeting in the South Carolina legislature are seen kicking off their shoes, sneaking shots of whiskey, openly devouring chicken, and ogling white women as soon as laws pass that allow interracial marriage. In the world of the film, mulattos are necessarily evil, while those with all-black ancestry have the choice to be either “good” (i.e., faithful to whites) or “bad” (i.e., interested in self-preservation and equality). As soon as the South loses the Civil War, renegade emancipated slaves (sometimes portrayed as savages wearing only scraps of clothing) team up with foul-hearted, ambitious Northern whites to completely overrun the noble heritage of the poor aristocratic South.
Griffith was shocked and deeply hurt by the negative reactions to his film. He truly thought he was selflessly performing an honorable function for the nation, and many Americans shared his views. In response to Addams’s well-publicized commentary, he released an “educational” annotated guide to The Birth of a Nation called The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America, drawing on academic historians to back up his commentary, albeit historians who were known for their racist predilections and sympathy for the plight of the South. Griffith was so affected by the negative response that his next major film project, Intolerance (1916), was conceived as a response to his detractors.
Although Griffith moved on, issues surrounding the film did not. The Birth of a Nation was re-released in 1924, 1931, and 1938, so it remained in the minds of film lovers and human rights activists for decades. Executives in Hollywood even thought about remaking it in 1950 and releasing the film on television as late as 1959. Each cinematic re-release was met with a new round of pickets and protests. Of course, all of this controversy generated box-office appeal, and Griffith would have been an enormously wealthy man had he not sunk his own profits into subsequent films.
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