Culture Re-View: “Birth of a Nation”, one of the most controversial films ever, is released

Adriana Lima
By Adriana Lima 4 Min Read
Members of the Ku Klux Klan, wearing traditional hoods and white tunics, march in single file ©AP/Copyright 2016 The AP.

February 8, 1915: “The most controversial film in the history of Hollywood” is released.

The 10s were a fertile time for cinema. Filmmaking began to move to Los Angeles in the United States during World War I, and the understanding of cinema as a narrative art form as we know it today was developing.

One of the biggest hits for American cinema at the time was ‘The Birth of a Nation’, directed by DW Griffith and released on this day in 1915. It is a black and white film chronicling the American Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln through the story of two families.

When it was released, it was instantly popular with white American audiences. Produced at a huge cost, it was meant to generate revenue and it did. Until 1939’s “Gone with the Wind,” it was the highest-grossing film in history. It was the first film ever to be screened specifically for a president in the White House, with a screening for Woodrow Wilson on February 18, 1915.

Critics in major newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times called it “the greatest film ever made,” and film studies courses revered film’s pioneering use of visual techniques. Close-ups, tracking shots and new editing techniques have all been seen for the first time in a big film. ‘The Birth of a Nation’ has appeared in many college film courses in the US because of this.

A member of the Ku Klux Klan speaks at a KKK rally in Buchanan, Georgia on June 20, 1981. Billy Downs/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

But the film is not without controversy. From day one, black audiences have emphasized that African-American characters receive racist portrayal, mostly from white actors in blackface, and play out harmful stereotypes.

Based on the 1905 novel “The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan” by Thomas Dixon Jr., the film traces a similar narrative that also depicts black and white communities as unable to live together and glorifies the formation of the Klu Klux Klan.

In fact, ‘The Birth of a Nation’ has made such an impact with its imagery in support of the Klu Klux Klan, it is considered a major factor in the resurrection of the white supremacist, right-wing terrorist group.

The film’s use of white cloaks and flaming crosses became significant iconography of the Second Klu Klux Klan, started in 1915 by William Joseph Simmons at Stone Mountain near Atlanta.

Ku Klux Klan members march past the Giles County Courthouse in Pulaski, Tennessee, January 18, 1986 Mark Humphrey/AP

Many film critics argue that film’s pioneering use of visual techniques makes it still important to study for the history of cinema. But with his role in rekindling a white supremacist hate group and inciting racial violence in 20th-century America, few films have as much blood on their hands.

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