Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915 and is a notorious silent film, a racist re-imagining of history that glorifies members of the KKK as heroic figures who protect the white women from freed slaves.

Shocking to watch, it's even more shocking to see these sentiments proudly expressed on Facebook pages. "The South Shall Rise Again" and denials that slavery had any part in secession are common claims. I swear I'd never have expected statues of Confederate military leaders to engender such devotion, but there are some people who seem to believe in the Confederacy as a noble cause. As a life-long Southerner, my idea of Southern Heritage is drinking iced tea, saying "ma'am" and "y'all" and being able to talk with a Southern drawl, eating Southern food, not wearing white after Labor Day, appreciating Southern literature, Blues and Bluegrass music.... It has nothing to do with honoring men who took up arms against the USA. Here in Tennessee the state government is punishing Memphis financially for taking down our statues:

The film The Birth of a Nation, directed by D. W. Griffith and starring Lillian Gish, was controversial from the beginning. It is credited with a revival of the Klan and is said to have been used as a recruitment tool.

Here's an early scene, showing how happy and well-treated the plantation field slaves were:

Here's a scene showing innocent Flora fleeing the unwanted attentions of the freed slave who has been influenced for ill by carpetbaggers:

Klansmen as noble rescuers of their women and other besieged white folk:


The first 8 minutes:

You can watch the entire film online, including here via Youtube:

The New Yorker says,
The worst thing about “Birth of a Nation” is how good it is. The merits of its grand and enduring aesthetic make it impossible to ignore and, despite its disgusting content, also make it hard not to love. And it’s that very conflict that renders the film all the more despicable, the experience of the film more of a torment—together with the acknowledgment that Griffith, whose short films for Biograph were already among the treasures of world cinema, yoked his mighty talent to the cause of hatred (which, still worse, he sincerely depicted as virtuous).
The New York Post says it's "still the most racist movie ever". has information explaining the importance of the film and also a detailed plot description. NPR explores the movie's legacy.

PBS notes that
In December 1999, the Directors Guild of America announces that D.W. Griffith will be retired as the namesake of its prestigious award for career achievement in moviemaking because he helped promote what they call "intolerable racial stereotypes." Although Guild members acknowledge his achievements, the vote to rename the award is unanimous.
The Washington Post says, "“The Birth of a Nation” takes its place alongside the Nazis’ “Triumph of the Will” and “Jew Suss” as among the most despicable propaganda pictures of all time. Its stereotypes have reverberated for a century." Time calls it "still great, still shameful". Historynet tells something of Griffiths' background and how he came to make the film.

Bright Lights Film Journal says, "Birth of a Nation has never ceased being the most reviled film in the history of cinema, with Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) running a close second" and concludes,
Birth is too alive to be shunted aside as a relic or as a reminder of how little (or how much) we’ve accomplished in race relations. It can be both these things, but Griffith, a complex, creative, and intensely motivated man, was much more than a regionalist hate monger. The full, diverse range of his films proves this, as does the diversity of intent and expression in The Birth of a Nation itself.

If you want to see a parody of the racist ideas supported by and embedded in this film, just watch this excerpt from Blazing Saddles:


  1. I remember when I was transferred to a town in southeast Kansas (which was a free state), one of the men asked where I was from. When I told him, he called me a DAMN YANKEE. All I could say was "thank you."

    This post hits so close to home for me. I have fought racism, among other hate-isms all my life, and wish it could end with my lifetime, but with a president who is a hate monger, it's hard to believe that will happen, at least not in the next few years. Thanks for this. I hope lots of people see this today and are as repulsed by the actions of the KKK and other hate groups as I.

    1. I remember how Trump supporters said Hillary lost the election and that we should get over it. Those same people should take a bit of their own advice. The South lost, and they should get over it. Removing the statues that were erected to intimidate does _not_ "erase history".

  2. I can't remember if I saw this decades ago or have just heard so much about it--but I think it would be very difficult to watch--right now, especially.

    1. It's a stunner, that's true. Its effects are still with us :(

  3. I've never watched it. I might attempt it later tonight.