There is a lot of talk of older films being held accountable today for content that was deemed acceptable at the time, but not so much now in today’s social climate. One film [of many] that was made strictly to be offensive and put down a large demographic of people in an effort to divide America was 1915’s The Birth of a Nation. The truly insane truth about this film is that it was a huge success and accomplishment for film at the time. It was the first 12-reel film that was ever made. It was the first movie to introduce intermissions. This movie pioneered fade-outs, close-ups, and using a couple hundred extras to look like thousands.
The Birth of a Nation Was Shown At the White House
At three hours and thirteen minutes, it was also the longest movie at that time. The Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. The budget for the film was $100,000 and it made anywhere in between $50 million-$100 million in the box office. Which was huge back then. It was also shown at the White House and viewed by President Woodrow Wilson.
I mention all of this because The Birth of a Nation has also been called America’s most controversial film. It was originally called The Clansman and was based on a book titled The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr. in 1905. The Birth of a Nation is a black and white silent-film movie that is incredibly cringy to watch. It’s on YouTube in its entirety and it’s pretty much the most insensitive movie I’ve ever watched. Yes, I did watch it. I wanted to explore this film after watching Netflix’s 13th. I was so appalled by what I saw, I had to go and see this film. The Birth of a Nation isn’t an example of just “the times being different” – it’s purposely inflammatory towards African Americans.
The KKK Came Out of Hiding After This Movie
This film was also pretty much responsible for the re-emerging of the KKK, as they’re pretty much made to be the heroes in this story. It’s so unbelievable, to me; to have a movie be so utterly racist and promoting hate-mongering and have been such a “crowning” achievement in American film history. As a lover of film and the history behind film and the silent era, I’m disgusted. The “pleasant music” played throughout the movie works as a tactic to calm the audience, as it portrays African Americans in absolutely abhorrent ways. First of all, any depiction of African Americans is via blackface. And in the movie, African Americans are portrayed as criminals, rapists, and murderers. They’re depicted as the enemy to white woman and in one case, a white woman jumps to her death to avoid being attacked by a black man.
The Birth of a Nation is not a film attempting to be historically accurate to the time after the Civil War. It’s pandering to racism and purposely promoting hate. From a cinema-stance, I can see how it aesthetically paved the way. But, it also paved the way for how African Americans would not only be portrayed in movies for years to come, but also how Americans viewed African Americans.
The Birth of a Nation Should Not Have Been Praised Even in 1915
I am not trying to erase history. There are cases where I believe that something from the past should be shown in its entirety with a message simply explaining how things were different back in the day. But, I do not believe that this is necessarily a film – it’s a piece of propaganda. For that reason and how its glorification of the KKK, it should not be something that is preserved. It should only be taught in school for how film can be used to push a message of hate. There are plenty of other old-time and silent-era films that can be looked upon as purveyors of modern-day film.
If this film hadn’t been so overly praised by the public and even the government, I don’t think I would feel a need to write this article. I would have simply brushed it off for what it was for the time period it came out in. But, because it got so much attention and admiration and even is thought to be such a great film is why I felt the need to talk about it.
Anyway, rant over. What do you all think of the history of The Birth of a Nation?