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.