The First Full-Length Feature Film Was Completely Racist

By Michael Van Duisen on Thursday, August 29, 2013
confed
The Birth of a Nation is not a bad film because it argues for evil . . . it is a great film that argues for evil.” —

In A Nutshell

In 1915, D.W. Griffith released The Birth of a Nation, the first full-length feature film ever created. Noted for its incredible cinematic achievements, as well as its overt racism, the film has become a hotbed of controversy, even being banned in various places. In addition, it shattered box office records and was the highest-grossing movie for decades.

The Whole Bushel

Based on the novel and play The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr., D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation was released on February 8, 1915. Immediately a success, as well as a travesty, it tells the story of two families: the pro-Union Northern Stonemans and the pro-Confederacy Southern Camerons. Much of the controversy surrounding the film is about the blatant racism in its depiction of African-Americans. Griffith portrays them as animals that go around raping white women, unable to control their sexual urges. It also romanticizes the Ku Klux Klan and its role in the country up to that point.

The film is broken up into two halves, with the first half set before and during the Civil War and the second half set in Reconstruction-era America. The two families are shown as stereotypes of what we would expect. The Stonemans are staunchly abolitionist with Austin Stoneman as a radical Congressman; the Camerons are simple Southerners who love their country and their families. When the slaves are freed, the African-Americans are depicted as brutes who take over the local governments and push whites away from voting. They are also shown as animals: Flora Cameron is forced to leap to her death to escape a black man trying to rape her. Ben Cameron is also depicted as the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, inspired by children dressing up as ghosts. At the end of the film, the KKK is shown keeping black people away from the ballot boxes, “restoring order to the country.”

Commercially, The Birth of a Nation was the undisputed box office champion until Gone with the Wind came out in the 1960s. Part of this success was to the ridiculous prices for seeing the film; adjusted for inflation, the $2 ticket price would be equivalent to over $45 today. However, it ended up being banned in eight different states and various cities around the country, mostly due to the unbelievable racism it shows toward black people. (When asked why the actors playing black people were just whites in blackface, Griffith responded: “There were scarcely any Negro actors on the Coast.”) The film is also credited with reviving the KKK, which had been declining in recent years. All things considered, it remained a beacon of American cinema until the 1960s, when changing racial beliefs began forcing introspection on much of the country.

Show Me The Proof

This Day in History: Birth of a Nation opens
PBS: D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation

  • Jinyo

    Gone with the Wind was released in 1939, a good two decades before the 1960s.

    Although it’s difficult to argue against the considerable impact that A Birth of a Nation had, I can’t help but think about the fact that the significance of this article (or Knowledge Nut) is predicated on the idea that this disgustingly racist film reigned atop the proverbial movie mountain for around a half-century until Gone with the Wind was released. This notion is quickly squashed with my initial statement. That false bit of information stuck out like a sore thumb primarily because of just how laughable it is, and I doubt I was the first to notice it.

    As much as I hate to say it, this makes me question the approval process of this website, one that I have enjoyed immensely so far.

    • Michael Van Duisen

      Sorry about the typo. Although, to be fair, 1915-1939 is still 24 years, which definitely qualifies as “decades”, so I don’t feel like the point behind it is invalid. But thank you for reading and noticing. (I think accidentally typed “1960s” because I was thinking about the fact most people didn’t question the movie until the 1960s.)

    • Garoc Tempest

      1908, The Story of the Kelly gang was the FIRST ever full length movie. Aussies have owned media for a long damn time. It’d be nothing without our contributions. (yes and of course nothing without the initial tech)

  • inconspicuous detective

    i don’t understand why there are banned films and books. are we trying to hide our history? is there some reason we should be ashamed? i don’t get it, and neither with future generations unless they’re exposed to it. conveniently removing bits of our past ruins our future, as those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them. this nonsense of banning racist material only stifles the growth of knowledge and the decline of ignorance, so well done.

    on a side note, racism itself is kept alive and well by those who want to use it as an out. it’s disgusting and an insult to the people who came before them who actually suffered through real racism (real being serious, malicious, very very bad). MLK is rolling in his grave at what has become of the black community here.

    • Ian Moone

      We should absolutely be ashamed of racism. But you’re right when you say we shouldn’t hide it. It happened and we should acknowledge that. If we don’t there is a good chance that people will forget why racism was (and is) horrible.

      • inconspicuous detective

        exactly.

    • miguel_g

      I totally agree with you, but some people like to think that they have the right to tell others what is good and what is bad for them, government and religion leaders loves to take all the decision for us, the think we are not capable to handle the truth even when history has showed us exactly the contrary.

  • Robert Downey

    i think the first full-length feature film, was “the Story of the Kelly Gang” 1906.

    • Sativa Savant

      True, that was an Australian film though so the article would still be perfectly valid if it was retitled “America’s First Full Length Feature Film” as “Birth Of A Nation” was the first one created in America.

      • Tx63Wolf

        No, even that’s not true. Oliver Twist, From the Manger to the Cross, Cleopatra, and Richard III were all american made feature films released in 1912.

  • Garoc Tempest

    Fail of an article, you didn’t even do your research did you? the FIRST ever movie length film was made in Australia in 1908 and thus pre-dates your movie by 7 years. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Story_of_the_Kelly_Gang (3 fucking seconds on google is all that took to find out)

    Educate yourself pleb. Such an unfunny joke this article was on a page called “KnowledgeNuts”. You just wanted to write an article about racism. Not about a movie. So transparent. It’s a nice strawman you have there though.