The Birth of A Nation (1915)

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November 15, 2016

By: Michael Pullen, Paxton Rigby, Shane Walker

An investigation of racism and censorship in D.W Griffith’s The Birth of A Nation…

 

 

 

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Who: D.W. Griffith
What: The Birth of A Nation
Where: The United States
When : 1915-1940
Why: Racism

 

 

The first true American blockbuster debuted in Los Angeles in 1915. With a budget fabled to be over $500,000 and a gripping story line, The Birth of a Nation was an instant must see. Although this film was groundbreaking in its cinematic production, wide angle shots, and use of extras, it is considered one of the most racist works of all time. Its plot revolves around two civil war era families, from both sides of the Mason Dixon Line. The first family resides in Washington, D.C. and consists of an abolitionist politician named Austin Stoneman and his daughter Elsie, and two sons Phil and Tod. The Stoneman family becomes friendly with a Southern family, the Camerons, who live on a plantation in Piedmont, South Carolina. The Cameron family includes two sisters, Margaret and Flora, as well brothers Ben, Wade, and Duke. It is important to note that Ben becomes a major figure because of his unwavering support to the confederacy.

In the film, the sons of the Stoneman family travel down to South Carolina to visit their old friends and romance blossoms between children in the two families. Margaret and Phil fall in love while Ben falls in love with a picture of Elsie without getting to meet her in person. All seems harmonious until it is time for the Stoneman boys to leave to fight for the Union Army as the Civil War begins. The Civil War not only puts a strain on the families’ relationships, but it pits them against each other on the battlefield. During the war, a black militia raids the Cameron home, adding fuel to Ben’s racist fire. The film characterizes Ben’s behaviors as heroic, and it is evident that the film has an evident bias toward southern ideals. Nonetheless, Ben later finds himself in a tricky predicament as he is treated in a Union Hospital in D.C. and is sentenced to death on espionage charges. Luckily, Mrs. Cameron takes the trip to D.C. and appeals to the president, Abraham Lincoln, who pardons Ben for his actions. After the war, the South is left in shambles and some take advantage of it. Austin Stoneman organizes for Silas Lynch, who has a secret love for Elsie, to be sent south to organize the newly emancipated slave population. The Ku Klux Klan catches wind of this supposed mixed love and assumes that Elsie must be victimized. Thus, the Klan quickly springs into action, attempting to “save” Elsie.  The conclusion to the movie seems to support the supremacist group.

Because of its glorification of the KKK, as well as demonization of African Americans,

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Figure 1: D.W Griffith on the set of The Birth of a Nation.

Griffith’s The Birth of A Nation faced staunch opposition. Censorship in 1915 was significantly different than today.  One-hundred years ago it was uncommon for movies to be censored. According to Melvyn Stokes, Professor of Film History at University College London, UK, “there were almost no local laws at first in the US banning films that were likely to encourage racial prejudice.” There was also no legal support to defend these films under the First Amendment. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) eventually approved the film in March of 1915 after requesting cuts “depicting interracial violence” (Lynskey). This censorship initially occurred in two states: Ohio and Kansas.

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) also had a crucial role in the censorship of The Birth of a Nation as it aggressively challenged the morality of the film. While the NAACP persistently fought for the movies ban, it ultimately failed to make a national impact.  It attempted, for instance, to ban the film in Chicago. Stokes brings to light that “the courts, by contrast, accepted that the contractual rights of those exhibitors who had paid to show the film in their town or city could not be infringed.” In other words, the rights of the theaters or companies who paid to show the film had always been upheld in court. Although the legality of the movie  was upheld in court there were always groups and individuals looking to ban the film.

The NAACP was not the only opponent of the film. William Monroe Trotter, a playwright and Harvard graduate, led a group of outraged individuals in the black community. With experience in film making, he “recognized the power of film as a mass medium that could influence millions” (Schwartz). Trotter’s disgust with the film led to a clash between he and D.W. Griffith.  Knowing that he was under tremendous scrutiny, Griffith built up a legal defense. He hired a team of lawyers and received monetary endorsements to halt further censorship of his film. Trotter did not have as many resources as Griffith, which hindered his efforts and ultimately led him and his allies to plead with the Governor of Illinois for a ban of the film. This government intervention sparked public interest. With this increase in public interest came a another court case fighting to ban the film, though it backfired when Griffith’s ticket sales increased (Schwartz ). The Magazine of History stated that The Birth of a Nation was an “immediate national sensation-between 1915 and 1946” and “over 200,000,000 viewed the movie” (Pitcher). While Trotter’s fight was not a complete failure, he strengthened the Motion Picture Production Code, and lit a fire that led to massive growth in the NAACP.

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Figure 2: African American being attacked by KKK in The Birth of a Nation.

Overall, The Birth of a Nation was not censored widely, ultimately being protected by the first amendment. Surprisingly, the only two states in to ban the film entirely were Ohio and Kansas. Other places merely sought cuts to the film. Jennifer Fronc, a Professor on the History of Censorship at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, references some of the cuts made mandated by the NBC, which allowed it to be passed in most states. She shares, “Griffith had cooperated throughout the process, removing some ‘scenes where a colored fellow was chasing a woman and frothing at the mouth’” and shorting “the ‘big fight in the saloon’” (613). Interestingly, this same National Board of Censorship released a set of guidelines or “Standards” the week prior to the release of The Birth of a Nation. Fronc comments on the contents of this release, noting that “The ‘Standards’ prohibited controversial material, such as obscenity and animal cruelty, but also warned against ‘treatment of a race’ that was ‘unduly libelous’”(612). Although many argued that the film was extremely libelous toward African Americans, the NBC nevertheless passed the film in 1915.

In the years after its release, The Birth of a Nation quickly became regarded as the most racist motion picture in American History. Because of backlash from the NAACP, the fight to censor the movie lasted for decades. Per Professor Stokes, “While the film usually wasn’t banned, the fact that by the 30’s and 40’s cinema managers knew that showing it would lead to demonstrations outside their theaters acted as a strong disincentive to showing it” (Stokes). Out of fear of public demonstrations, these cinema managers would avoid screening the film, even though it had been one of the most profitable films in American history. Thus, public pressure effectively censored this movie. Music, film, and political writer Dorian Lynskey comments on the NAACP’s fight to ban The Birth of a Nation, “When you consider how tainted the film’s reputation became by the end of the 20’s, and will remain forever, you could argue that [it] did ultimately succeed in making this movie a pariah. Not all victories come quickly, or are immediately apparent” (Lynskey). Because the NAACP helped to negatively stigmatize the movie, it was successfully censored by society itself.

To this day, The Birth of A Nation is regarded as the most racist movie ever put on the screen. It is blatant in its utter bias against African Americans. The movie’s favorable portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan only adds to the film’s racism. While the NAACP’s public opposition of the film was unsuccessful in the short term, in the long term, its efforts succeeded.

Work Cited:

Primary:

Schwartz, Jack. “The Fight to Ban ‘Birth of a Nation'” The Daily Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast, 20 Nov. 2014. Web. 09 Nov. 2016

Lynskey, Dorian. “How the Fight to Ban The Birth of a Nation Shaped American History.” Slate Magazine. N.p., 31 Mar. 2015. Web. 09 Nov. 2016

Secondary:

Fronc, J. (2015). “HISTORICAL PRESENTATION” OR “LIBEL TO THE RACE”?: CENSORSHIP AND THE BIRTH OF A NATION. The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, 14(4), 612-615. doi:http://dx.doi.org.prx.library.gatech.edu/10.1017/S1537781415000432

McEwan, Paul. “Lawyers, Bibliographies, And The Klan: Griffith’s Resources In The Censorship Battle Over The Birth Of A Nation In Ohio.” Film History 20.3 (2008): 357-366. History Reference Center. Web. 9 Nov. 2016.

Pitcher, Conrad. “D. W. Griffith’s Controversial Film, The Birth of a Nation.” Pro Quest. N.p., 1 Apr. 1999. Web. 11 Nov. 16.

Keywords:

KKK, Censorship, NAACP, Film making, NBC, Motion Picture, 1915, Griffith, Ban, Self Censorship

 

 

 

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