First Movie in the White House

J. Hoberman

  • D.W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’: A History of ‘The Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time’ by Melvyn Stokes
    Oxford, 414 pp, £13.99, January 2008, ISBN 978 0 19 533679 5

The Birth of a Nation may not be the greatest movie ever made (whatever that might mean), but it is the one that has had the greatest impact on America and, indirectly, the world. Never was a movie more aptly named; and rarely have quotations marks been more superfluous than in the subtitle of Melvyn Stokes’s informative book.

What did Griffith bring into the world? Imagine an unholy combination of The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11, a movie as violent and sentimental as Saving Private Ryan and as tricksy as Forrest Gump, landing with the force of Titanic in the nickelodeon universe of 1915, where the typical attraction was 20 minutes long. Griffith’s blockbuster, a three-hour account of the Civil War and Reconstruction adapted from a popular melodrama by Thomas Dixon, was the longest, costliest and most spectacular American movie to date. The screen had never been filled with so many actors and so much action; battle scenes had never been so vivid; and the past had never been represented with such immediacy.

At the time, The Birth of a Nation appeared to epitomise modernity. But to understand Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein wrote, ‘one must visualise an America made up of more than visions of speeding automobiles, streamlined trains, racing ticker tape, inexorable conveyor belts. One is obliged to comprehend this second side of America as well – America, the traditional, the patriarchal, the provincial.’ And, the Soviet filmmaker was too polite to add, America the racist, the self-righteous and the white supremacist.

The depiction of the entire Civil War is merely a prelude to the madness of the movie’s final hour: an orgy of arson and rape, anarchy, revolution and counter-revolution, human sacrifice and hair’s-breadth rescue, the sacred vengeance of flaming crosses, the vigilante justice of flags dipped in blood. To add to the frenzy, Griffith set this last movement to a virtual loop of Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. The Birth of a Nation was the first movie for which an elaborate musical score was seen as integral to the action.

The hoopla that greeted the film on its release in 1915 – the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War – was no less impressive. Griffith strategically opened the second half of the movie with a series of quotations from Woodrow Wilson’s History of the American People and manoeuvred to secure Wilson’s endorsement: The Birth of a Nation was the first movie ever shown at the White House; the next night, possibly at the president’s bidding, it was screened for an audience of Washington dignitaries. But not everybody appreciated it. It was immediately attacked by the newly established National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which issued a statement declaring that ‘every resource of a magnificent new art has been employed with an undeniable attempt to picture Negroes in the worst possible light.’

The awful truth was that Griffith was the embodiment of that magnificent new art: he was to cinema what Henry Ford was to industrial production. Griffith introduced narrative suspense and emotional identification to the movies. He began making two-reel films in 1907, and after turning out hundreds of them he had learned how to use editing to create dramatic tension, by cutting back and forth with increasing rapidity between two or even three actions. Previously, a scene had usually involved a single camera set-up; it was Griffith who pulverised homogeneous space by shifting camera angles and using close-ups. The close-up also produced a new style of film-acting that gave heightened significance to objects, body parts and, above all, facial expressions.

So, the founding work of American cinema is at once vile slander and thrilling narrative, a stunning technical achievement and a moral catastrophe. It is remarkable that, with the exception of an anthology published in 1971, Stokes’s is the first full study of The Birth of a Nation and its reception. Not that the movie has ever lacked for attention: it was greeted by protests virtually everywhere it opened outside the old Confederacy and was banned in Chicago, Cleveland, St Louis and Topeka. On the other hand, for the Atlanta premiere, 25,000 Klansmen marched down Peachtree Avenue in full regalia.

Between 1915 and 1973, Stokes writes, The Birth of a Nation was embroiled in 120 different censorship controversies. Fourteen of these involved an attempt to pass legislation; another eight created new censorship boards specifically to control Griffith’s movie. From the start, white liberals were torn between their opposition to the film and their opposition to censorship. In New York and Boston, the NAACP put pressure on politicians to ban it – although, as Stokes writes, this was ‘a war fought to defend blacks but waged primarily by whites’. The NAACP and its allies suffered a considerable number of defeats and yet, ‘in many places, the arrival of The Birth of a Nation forced local leaders to address – perhaps for the first time – the state of race relations in their community.’

The Birth of a Nation played in the US as a special attraction for nearly a decade; it was revived throughout the silent era and, with soundtrack added, up until the Second World War. In April 1939, Stokes reports, the proprietor of the Jewel Theater in Denver was arrested for showing it. The Communist Party made an issue of it too, picketing screenings in New York City and elsewhere into the 1950s. In 2004, the Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles was forced to cancel a well-publicised screening.

Along with Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its many post-Civil War stage productions, Gone with the Wind (the novel and the movie), and Roots (the novel and the mini-series), The Birth of a Nation is part of the cycle that the late Leslie Fiedler called America’s ‘inadvertent epic’. One could add Oscar Micheaux’s early novels and polemical films, Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baaadasssss Song, the radio show Amos n’ Andy, The Bill Cosby Show, Ken Burns’s PBS series The Civil War, all versions of Show Boat, the 1927 Jazz Singer, Elvis, The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Spike Lee’s subsequent biopic, the O.J. Simpson mediathon, and Barack Obama’s ‘A More Perfect Union’ speech, as well as his entire presidential campaign. Taken together, these comprise a multimedia discourse on the mythology of black-white relations in the US.

Indeed, as Stokes shows, The Birth of a Nation grew organically from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Thomas Dixon, a lawyer, politician and Baptist minister born into a slave-holding family in the Confederate state of North Carolina three years into the Civil War, was enraged by the success of a stage version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. His response was to write a quasi-autobiographical novel, The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burden (1902), which was both a sequel and a corrective to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s story, extending it into the Reconstruction period. Among the characters who reappear in Dixon’s book is the sadistic slave-master Simon Legree, who opportunistically turns Republican, gets elected governor of North Carolina, steals a fortune and relocates to New York City.

The Leopard’s Spots sold more than a million copies; Dixon’s subsequent Civil War-Reconstruction novel The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905) was even more successful, and was turned into a hit play which toured for several years. Dixon even attempted to make his own movie version of it before joining forces with Griffith, who was another son of the South – indeed, the son of a Kentucky colonel. Griffith, who had been brought up on his father’s war stories and a belief in the nobility of the Confederacy’s lost civilisation, streamlined the melodrama by focusing on two families, the Stonemans of Pennsylvania and the Camerons of South Carolina, and simplified the narrative even as he expanded the story backwards to the eve of the war. He also invested Dixon’s material with his own family history, not to mention his fear, race hatred and sexual paranoia.

Among its other outrages, The Birth of a Nation presented itself as historically accurate. Stokes enumerates its most blatant distortions. Courts in South Carolina were never dominated by blacks, and ex-Confederates experienced only a partial and temporary disenfranchisement at the polls. Blacks held a majority of the seats in the state legislature but never controlled the state apparatus (and made no attempt to legislate on intermarriage). There was no period of corrupt black rule or black terror; the collapse of law and order had more to do with white attacks on blacks than vice versa. The Ku Klux Klan disbanded in 1869 and was moribund by 1871; it played no role in an anti-Reconstruction counter-revolution. The radical Republican senator Thaddeus Stevens, represented in the film as Austin Stoneman, died in 1868 and never visited South Carolina.

But facts, as Ronald Reagan once told his fellow citizens, are ‘stupid things’. The Birth of a Nation was powerful mythmaking. It sentimentalised slavery and celebrated the gallantry of the Confederate ‘lost cause’. Moreover, as Stokes notes, Griffith’s insistence that North and South were united by a common ‘Aryan birthright’ tapped into a new racial paranoia that saw immigrants and ‘Orientals’ as an imminent danger to America’s white Anglo-Saxon civilisation. The movie helped to popularise the view of Abraham Lincoln – referred to in the movie as the Great Heart – as compassionate and forgiving, even as it helped to revive a new nativist Ku Klux Klan. Ushers in some movie theatres wore Klan sheets or Confederate uniforms. Meanwhile, as the Klan spread far beyond the South, establishing itself throughout New England, the Atlantic seaboard and the Midwest, The Birth of a Nation was used as a recruitment film as far north as Portland, Oregon.

Stokes has done an invaluable job researching The Birth of a Nation’s back story and reception. And it would seem that he has invested a good deal of energy in resisting its power as a film – as well he might. ‘Modern audiences, always a little smug when looking at the past, are somewhat tongue-tied before Griffith’s film,’ the film historian Russell Merritt wrote early in the 1970s. ‘We are troubled that Griffith can so successfully build the Klan into a glorious Armada.’ Griffith’s ‘ultimate achievement’, Merritt thought, was ‘the intensity with which he forced and continues to force his tattered themes and values upon us’.

Having haunted America for the past 90 years, The Birth of a Nation is difficult to exorcise. For several years, the avant-garde musician DJ Spooky (Paul Miller) has been performing a live digital remix he calls Rebirth of a Nation. Griffith’s original, accompanied by an improvised trip-hop score, is projected onto three screens and put through loops, layered with ghostly superimpositions, reframed and otherwise abstracted. But these pyrotechnics (and the annotation that Miller has supplied in a DVD version) don’t dispel the power of Griffith’s narrative.

A dozen years ago, the Library of Congress created a stir when it dropped The Birth of a Nation from a wide-ranging series of movies marking cinema’s centenary. The only thing worse than showing Griffith’s movie is to pretend it never existed. The movie that rewrote history cannot be so easily written out of film – or American – history. It has never ceased to be relevant and was never more so than during the long 2008 presidential election, not just because the only African American in the US Senate (and one of only four since Reconstruction) was running for president; but also because the election itself was so relentlessly personalised. The Birth of a Nation not only made history, it changed the ways by which the past is represented. Griffith taught the movies to take history personally, to interject close-ups, dramatic re-creations and factoids to aid a particular plot line – and the movies taught the world the excitement of visualised drama. In last year’s election, every candidate had his or her story; each campaign was required to project a narrative and would be criticised by media pundits if it failed to do so. John McCain had his tale of captivity and endurance; Joe Biden recalled the car crash that killed his first wife and their two young children; Barack Obama had written a bestselling memoir. McCain’s first line of attack was to accuse Obama of being a celebrity like Britney Spears or Paris Hilton; the Republicans created their own media star in Sarah Palin.

Throughout the campaign, supplementary narratives, footnotes and rumours were regularly posted on YouTube. The comedy show Saturday Night Live unexpectedly asserted its relevance and intervened several times: first to suggest that Obama was benefiting from an overly deferential press, later to present a hyperreal caricature of Palin that captivated the nation as much as the original. The Birth of a Nation is part epic pageant, part minstrel show, inhabited by a mixture of stock types and quasi-historical figures, and similar, half-imaginary beings haunted cyberspace and the cable news channels throughout the campaign: Hockey Moms, Domestic Terrorists, Black Nationalist Preachers, Tina Fey’s Palin. And just as The Birth of a Nation manages to reduce the Civil War and Reconstruction to a tale of two families, so the candidates consistently grounded their positions in the stories of ordinary Americans.

This sort of close-up has a long history in American politics, but ever since the practice was made the norm by Ronald Reagan, a master of Hollywood rhetoric, politicians have been obliged to cite instances of exemplary suffering or everyday heroism that come to their attention; every campaign speech offers its own case history. The use of such cameos culminated in the final weeks of the McCain campaign, which were dominated by the supposed ruminations of Joe the Plumber – a man who wasn’t called Joe and didn’t have a plumber’s licence.

Many have claimed that Obama’s election marks a turning point in American history as epochal as that of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 or Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. At the very least, his success has redeemed the awful history embodied by The Birth of a Nation. But we can’t get away from Griffith so easily. He was right about one thing. Only a few weeks after The Birth of a Nation had its Los Angeles premiere, he predicted a time ‘when the children in the public schools will be taught practically everything by moving pictures. Certainly they will never be obliged to read history again.’