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Hollywood’s First Great Film Was Also Its Most Racist

100 years later, The Birth of a Nation is a jaw-dropping study in why you can’t separate enviable style from noxious substance.

A hundred years ago, American film's most infamous film was birthed. Technically beautiful but with a butt-ugly soul, soured by rancid hatred and unmasked ignorance, D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation is often credited with creating much of the unique language films have used to speak to us ever since, but mostly in the service of cinematic hate speech. Released February 8, 1915, it's the oldest on AFI's 100 Years … 100 Movies list (or at least on the version released in 1998; it was one of 23 removed for the revised list released in 2007, but more on that later) and the only one reportedly used as a recruitment tool for the Ku Klux Klan. In 2015, the film—which depicts a revisionist version of the Civil War and Reconstruction so outlandish the most bigoted redneck alive today probably wouldn't dare repeat it in public—looks less like a shining moment in American movie history and more like something from an alternate timeline that arrived here by mistake, some nightmare-realm Voynich Manuscript filled with racist cartoons.

The parallel-dimension vibe is set early on in the 1930 re-release (the version currently streaming on Netflix). Griffith—clearly attempting to protect his film's legacy from the very justified accusations of racism that had been made since the film first appeared—briefly discusses the film's context in what's dubbed an interview but which is actually a staged parlor scene of incredible awkwardness. Actor Walter Huston (who played the title role in Griffith's Abraham Lincoln, also released in 1930) questions Griffith about his father's role as a general in the Confederate army before presenting the director with a sword like the one his father would have worn, all but thanking Griffith for his father's service. Griffith then asserts that—due to the horrific conditions faced by white Southerners in the Reconstruction-era South following Lincoln's assassination—“the Klan at that time was needed, and served a purpose.”

That line, left completely unchallenged by Huston, sets the tone for the film's first half. The first scene, a slave auction, is preceded by a victim-blaming title card reading “The bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion.” The suffering, un-credited actors in this scene appear to be actual black people, but the actors with larger roles— such as Jennie Lee, credited as “Mammy” and Mary Alden, credited as Lydia, a “Mulatto Housekeeper”—made-up in blackface so hideous it almost seems to be a meta-caricature, are clear indicators of the real, race-baiting, revisionist insanity to follow. The South of The Birth of a Nation, though still not victorious, seems universally acknowledged to have had noble motivations for fighting and its behavior in defeat. Rarely is history ever allowed to be so carelessly rewritten by its sore losers on such a widescreen scale. Abolitionists are depicted as holier-than-thou makers of unnecessary waves; Lincoln, whose election is blamed for Southern secession, is shown signing orders calling for 75,000 Union troops while the catalyst for those orders, the shots fired at Fort Sumter, goes unmentioned. Griffith's opinion on Lincoln, at least, seems to evolve throughout the film from the resentment felt by its secessionist Southern characters to the fear after their defeat and his assassination that Lincoln might well have been the best friend they could have hoped for in the North. The depiction of that assassination, which concludes the first part of the film, is therefore unexpectedly sensitive. It's also a showcase for the close-ups, intercuts, and other advanced shots that make Griffith necessary viewing for film students. Had the movie concluded there, it might well be justified as a “classic” though an extremely “problematic” one.

A title card from The Birth of a Nation

The instant Huston and Griffith appear onscreen between acts for further stilted Q&A time between parts one and two, it becomes obvious we are headed for something far worse than “problematic.” When asked by Huston if conditions were really as bad for poor Southern whites during Reconstruction as the film is about to depict them, Griffith simply points to a quote from Woodrow Wilson's autobiography which accuses the North of purposefully working to “put the white South under the heel of the black South” forcing Southern white men to form the Klan out of “a mere instinct of self-preservation.” Though in retrospect Wilson (at least if his own presidential library is to be believed) is a pretty terrible source to cite to convince modern audiences you aren't an unapologetic bigot, Griffith uses Wilson's extremely suspect recollection as a license to let his racist paranoia run rampant, employing every cinematic means of manipulation yet devised to create a world where the recently freed slaves are encouraged by northern “carpetbagger” politicians to terrorize their former masters and go after their women. Griffith's obvious obsession with maintaining racial purity and his clear belief that the very idea that black people should be treated equal to whites is outrageously insulting tip his true hand early and often throughout the film. To name just one example, shortly after the film was released, NAACP board member Jane Addams offered The New York Post a critique lambasting the “ridiculous scene in a Southern legislature, to which the election of a majority of negroes has been obtained by defrauding whites of their votes. Negro legislators are shown taking off their shoes at their desks, drinking whiskey from flasks while making speeches, acting in all sorts of uncouth ways. It is laughably false to the whole truth.” Addams also complained that the KKK is depicted as an organization of legendary Southern folk heroes riding to the rescue of ravaged women while “none the outrageous, vicious, misguided outrages, which it certainly committed, are shown.” That she is “not interested in loading blame for those outrages on the men who made up the Klan” is telling of the environment that the film was released in, and that the article's author feels the need to preface the article about the film by noting that “Miss Adams softened no terms in her condemnation of it” is even more so. Roger Ebert, who included the film in his list of “Great Movies,” says Griffith and The Birth of a Nation were no more enlightened than the America that produced them: “The film represents how racist a white American could be in 1915 without realizing he was racist at all.”

Were The Birth of a Nation a handwritten manifesto, the blame might begin and end with Griffith, but possibly the most disturbing facet of the film is the amount of collaboration necessary to pull of an epic of such magnitude. It implicates so many in its creation, from the costumers who sewed the same kind of Klan hoods Griffith fondly recalled his mother making, to the trumpeters who played triumphant fan fare to soundtrack the KKK riding to the rescue, to the countless black extras no one thought it necessary to credit as actors who fill out the crowd scenes to better illustrate the “menacing” presence they represent to the white South. They, at least, are spared from having their names forever associated with this garbage. Griffith’s documented reluctance to work or train any black actors pays off in an unexpected way: In high contrast to the foreground-occupying named characters in ridiculous blackface, the black extras are often just standing around in the background looking bored, perhaps waiting from direction from Griffith. Thus, many of these extras, who are often teen girls, the elderly, and other very non-threatening-looking people, cause the viewer to question, hopefully not for the first time, how badly a terrorist organization like the Klan was really “needed” by anyone.

Under no circumstances does any of what transpired in The Birth of a Nation seem like justice. Even in a nonexistent, bizaro world of Southern statehouses filled with barefoot black winos does a line of mounted Klansmen scaring black voters away from the polls on election day look like a happy ending. (If The Birth of a Nation is a film someone could “spoil” for you, please reevaluate your life.)

The Birth of a Nation must undoubtedly be the most blatantly racist major motion picture ever widely released in the United States. In addition to helping invent the language of film, Griffith's movie seems to be an effort to compile an exhaustive collection of white American racism's greatest hits, including but certainly not limited to “they're coming for your wife!” “those damn liberals buying the black vote with government handouts,” and “they're coming for your daughters!” Were Griffith to film it now expressly as a Klan recruitment, the KKK might well turn it down for being too on-the-nose. While the film's technical innovations have become such industry standards in the intervening century that they have become almost invisible outside of the context of film history, the racist theories at its heart are still being spouted by every ignorant jerk covering an inferiority complex with intellectualized intolerance. And people accuse filmmakers of running out of ideas!

Speaking of Intolerance, Griffith's follow-up to Birth of a Nation replaced its predecessor on AFI's list when the institute revised it in 2007. Apparently desiring to make another historic epic, Griffith grafts the story of Christ onto a then-contemporary story about a Henry Ford-type mill owner who attempts to exact almost complete control over every facet of his employees' personal lives while paying them far less than a living wage, keeping them dependent on his sister's nosy, nagging “charity.” This final story might have been a true classic had the director so known for his focus not lost sight of his supposed theme (hatred and intolerance are constantly in battle with love and charity) in the muddled spectacle he concocted. Though it was presumably judged the acceptable stand-in for its predecessor due to its significantly more honorable-seeming raison d'etre, Intolerance is less like the act of cinematic contrition critics want it to be and more like the slump that often follows a success, attempting to tweak the formula, making it unnecessarily complicated, in an effort to obscure the fact that its creator already said the thing he really wanted to say the last time around. The Birth of a Nation remains the more significant film because it unintentionally captures the darkest side of a human psyche and projects it unfiltered to the world for consideration and analysis. The question of how Griffith got those shots should be much less important to filmmakers than examining the disconnect that allows a director to expect us to weep with the newly poor white belle wearing raw cotton and pretending it's ermine after asking us to accept that her slaves, living in inarguably worse conditions, are so elated with their lives they spend their dinner break dancing for joy and, of course, for the entertainment of their beloved masters.

The ugly roots of racism are probably not seen this exposed again onscreen until Do the Right Thing did it for much better reasons in 1989. Perhaps coincidentally, Spike Lee's masterpiece was added to the AFI list in 2007, as well. Not added and often not even mentioned in articles about The Birth of a Nation is Within Our Gates, a film made by another black director, Oscar Micheaux, about 70 years before Do the Right Thing. Sometimes described as a response to The Birth of a Nation, Within Our Gates is more a response to the widespread racism of which Griffith's film was just a flashy symptom. Though not as technically accomplished as The Birth of a Nation, Within Our Gates was made with a fraction of the resources or support, and the fact that it survives at all when many of Micheaux's other films do not (authorities, often so quick to reject the NAACP's repeated requests to ban or censor The Birth of a Nation seemed much less protective of Micheaux's art when it was accused of race-baiting) is a minor movie miracle. Like Intolerance, Gates too is a mess of plot contrivances, and deus ex mechina, and Micheaux's films, too, are accused of having problematic racial undertones. Two of AFI's reported criteria, however—historical significance and cultural impact —make it difficult to imagine why the oldest known surviving film made by a black director and starring a multicultural cast isn't considered at least as noteworthy as Griffith's innovative editing and cinematography techniques. One of the other criteria, however, popularity over time—a.k.a. total money made at the box office and through home video sales, etc.—might provide an answer as to why The Birth of a Nation still gets the attention. In addition to being known as the first modern movie, The Birth of a Nation is also known as the first blockbuster, by far the oldest film among the list of top box-office earners when adjusted for inflation. In Hollywood, money is the ultimate scorekeeper, and film history is always written by the winners.

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