Wednesday, March 5, 2014


In the beginning...She Blinded Me With Silents (Post 3 of 12)

The Birth of a Nation

Opinions and Reviews on The Birth of a Nation from 1915

A pernicious caricature of the Negro race.
-Jane Addams, New York Evening Post, March 13, 1915

The very name of The Birth of a Nation is an insult to Washington, who believed that a nation, not merely a congeries of independent states, was born during the common struggles of the Revolutionary War, and devoted himself to cementing the union. It is an insult to Lincoln and the great motives inspiring him when he was called on to resist the attempt to denationalize a nation. The nation of ours was not born between 1861 and 1865, and no one will profit from trying to pervert history.
-New York Globe, April 6, 1915.

They declare in substance that the play in its final impression on the audience does six things: (1) It reunites common sympathy and love in all sections of our country. (2) It teaches our boys the history of our nation in a way that makes them know the priceless inheritance our fathers gave us through the sacrifice of war and reconstruction. (3) It tends to prevent the lowering of the standard of our citizenship by its mixture with Negro blood. (4) It shows the horror and futility of war as a method of settling civic principles. (5) It reaffirms Lincoln's solution of the Negro problem as a possible guide to our future and glorifies his character as the noblest example of American democracy. (6) It gives to Daniel Webster for the first time his true place in American history as the inspiring creator of the modern nation we know today.
-Thomas Dixon, Reply to The New York Globe, April 10, 1915.

We have received letters of the heartiest commendation from statesmen, writers, clergymen, artists, educators, and laymen. I have in my possession applications for reservations from the principals of ten schools, who having seen the picture, are desirous of bringing their pupils to view it for historic truths...In every walk of life there are men and women of this city (New York) who have expressed their appreciation of this picture. Do you dare to intimate that these voluntary expressions of approval were voiced for "purely sordid reasons?"
-D. W. Griffith, Reply to The New York Globe, April 10, 1915.

Griffith struck it right when he adapted the Dixon story for the film. He knew the South and he knew just what kind of picture would please all white classes. Some places the censors are going to find fault. That's a persistent way some censors have. The scene of the "black congress" and the negro removing his shoe may be censured, but it's drawn from reported facts. But no matter what the censors censor there will be plenty of film action and interest left to make it the biggest demanded film production of the present century. It's worth seeing anywhere. Many will see it twice, yea thrice and still obtain much satisfaction and entertainment.
- Mark Vance, Variety, March 12, 1915.

The audience which saw the play at the private exhibition in the Liberty Theater was a most friendly one. It was significant that on more than one occasion during the showing of the films, there were hisses mingled with applause. These hisses were not, of course, directed against the artistic quality of the film. They were evoked by the undisguised appeals to race prejudices. The tendency of the second part is to inflame race hatred. The negroes are shown as horrible brutes, given over to beastly excesses, defiant and criminal in their attitude toward the whites, and lusting after white women. Some of the details are plainly morbid and repulsive. The film having roused the hatred and disgust of the white against the black to the highest pitch, suggest as a remedy to the racial question the transportation of the Negroes to Liberia, which Griffith assures us was Lincoln's idea.
-W. Stephen Bush, Moving Picture World , March 13, 1915.

The story of the creation was told in eight words, but should the pen of another Moses be raised today he would need ten times that number of pages to do credit to The Birth of a Nation.

There has been nothing to equal it-nothing. Not a motion picture, not a play, nor a book does it come to you; but as the soul and spirit and flesh of the heart of your country's history, ripped from the past and brought quivering with all human emotions before your eyes.

It swept the audience at the Atlanta Theater on Monday night like a tidal wave. A youth in the gallery leapt to his feet and yelled and yelled. A little boy downstairs pounded the man's back in front of him and shrieked. The man did not know it. He was a middle-aged hard-lipped citizen; but his face twitched and his throat gulped up and down. Here a young girl kept dabbing and dabbing at her eyes and there an old lady just sat and let the tears stream down her face unchecked.

And if you haven't seen it, spend the money, borrow it, beg it, get it any old way. But see The Birth of a Nation.
-Ward Greene, The Atlanta Journal, December 7, 1915.


Since the time of its release, D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, based on Thomas Dixon's book The Clansman, has been a lightning rod of controversy (like writing history with lightning in fact, or so said Woodrow Wilson). But there had never been anything on the screen before quite like this narrative action piece on The Civil War and its aftermath.

But is The Birth of a Nation an historically significant film?  The answer is yes.

Is it great epic storytelling? Yes, most definitely.

Is it an accurate history of the time? At times it gets it right. At times it gets it wrong to tragic proportions.

Should it be seen? Absolutely.


  1. Very interesting to read the commentaries from back then. It is always too easy to apply modern sentiments when thinking of these old films. Yet it majes me really sad that the first great feature of cinema should be such a travesty. A cruel joke really. Like the first tv signal to be broadcast was of Hitler at the 36 olympic games.

  2. I had such a hard time coming to a review on this. If you love it, you have loved one of the most racially backwards films in history. If you hate it, you've hated a film that gave us technical and stylistic achievements that are still used today. So you're either a racist or a Philistine.

    Damn you, Griffiths!

  3. It's actually toned down from the Dixon book, which I got through only part of. The film is definitely hard to take at times, but I'm not willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater.