to The History of American Film: Primary Sources
a Vicious Film: Protest against "The Birth of a Nation"
Boston Branch of the National Association for the Advancement
of Colored People, 1915
Few films ever aroused as much controversy as D.W. Griffith's
Birth of a Nation. Critics denounced it as a gross distortion
of American history that promoted racial strife. The following
two selections offer examples of the kinds of arguments raised
against Griffith's epic.
In its advertisement we are told that The Birth of a Nation is
founded on Thomas Dixon's novel The Clansman; that it is a war
play "that worked the audience up into a frenzy"; that
"it will make you hate."
In an interview with a Boston editor, Thomas Dixon said, "that
one purpose of his play was to create a feeling of abhorrence
in which people, especially white women, against colored men";
"that he wished to have Negroes removed from the United States
and that he hopes to help in the accomplishment of that purpose
by The Birth of a Nation."
In further these purposes the producers of the film to not hesitate
to resort to the meanest vilification of the Negro race, to pervert
history, and to use the most subtle form of untruth--a half truth.
Well knowing that such a play would meet strong opposition in
Boston, large sums of money were spent in the employment of Pinkerton
detectives and policemen to intimidate citizens, and the managers
of the theatre refused to sell tickets to colored people. To soften
opposition, the impression was given that the president of the
United States had endorsed the play and that George Foster Peabody
and other distinguished people favored it. One method of working
up support was to pass cards among the auditors asking them to
endorse the play. These cards were circulated, signed and collected
at the end of the first act and before the second act in which
appear the foul and loathsoe misrepresentations of colored people
and the glorification of the hideous and murderous band of the
Ku Klux Klan....
by Francis Hackett
If history bore no relation to life, this motion picture could
well be reviewed and applauded as a spectacle. As a spectacle
it is stupendous. It lasts three hours, represents a staggering
investment of time and money, reproduces entire battle scens and
complex historic events; amazes even when it wearies by its attempt
to encompass the Civil War. But since history does bear on social
behavior, The Birth of a Nation cannot be reviewed simply as a
spectacle. It is more than a spectacle. It is an interpretation,
the Rev. Thomas Dixon's interpretation, of the relations of the
North and South and their bearing on the Negro....
In The Birth of a Nation Mr. Dixon protests sanctimoniously that
his drama "is not meant to reflect in any way on any race
or people of today." And then he proceeds to give to the
Negro a kind of malignity that is really a revelation of his own
Passing over the initial gibe at the Negro's smell, we early come
to a negrophile senator whose mistress is a mulatto. As conceived
by Mr. Dixon and as acted in the film, this mulatto is not only
a minister to the senator's lust but a woman of inordinate passion,
pride and savagery. Gloating as she does over the promise of "Negro
equality," she is soon partnered by a male mulatto of similar
brute characteristics. Having established this triple alliance
between the "uncrowned king," his diabolic colored mistress
and his diabolic colored ally, Mr. Dixon shows the revolting processes
by which the white South is crushed "under the heel of the
black South." "Sowing the wind," he calls it. On
the one hand we have "the poor bruised heart" of the
white South, on the other " the new citizens inflamed by
the growing sense of power." We see Negroes shoving white
men off the sidewalk, Negroes quitting work to dance, Negroes
beating a crippled old white patriarch, Negroes slinging up "faithful
colored servants" and flogging them till they drop, Negro
courtesans guzzling champagne with the would-be head of the Black
Empire, Negroes "drunk with wine and power," Negroes
mocking their white master in chains, Negroes "crazy with
joy" and terrorizing all the whites in South Carolina. We
see blacks flaunting placards demanding "equal marriage."
We see the black leading demanding a "forced marriage"
with an imprisoned and gagged white girl. And we see continually
in the background the white Southerner in "agony of soul
over the degradation and ruin of his people."
Encouraged by the black leader, we see Gus the renegade hover
about another young white girl's home. To hoochy-coochy music
we see the long pursuit of the innocent white girl by this lust-maddened
Negro, and we see her fling herself to death from a precipice,
carrying her honor through "the opal gates of death."
Having painted this insanely apprehensive picture of an unbridled,
bestial, horrible race, relieved only by a few touches of low
comedy, "the grim reaping begins." We see the operations
of the Ku Klux Klan, "the organization that saved the South
from the anarchy of black rule." We see Federals and Confederates
uniting in a Holy War "in defense of their Aryan birthright,"
whatever that is. We see the Negroes driven back, beaten, killed.
The drama winds up with a suggestion of Lincoln's solution"--back
to Liberia--and then, if you please, with a film representing
Jesus Christ in "the halls of brotherly love."
My objection to this drama is based partly on the tendency of
the pictures but mainly on the animus of the printed lines I have
quoted. The effect of these lines, reinforced by adroit quotations
from Woodrow Wilson and repeated assurances of impartiality and
goodwill, is to arouse in the audience a strong sense of the evil
possibilities of the Negro and the extreme propriety and godliness
of the Ku Klux Klan. So strong is this impression that the audience
invariably applauds the refusal of the white hero to shake hands
with a Negro, and under the circumstances cannot be blamed. Mr.
Dixon has identified the Negro with cruelty, superstition, insolence,
Whatever happened during Reconstruction, this film is aggressively
vicious and defamatory. It is spiritual assassination. It degrades
the censors that passed it and the white race that endures it.