D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece has long haunted film critics and historians. The first “blockbuster,” it’s the most important, and until Gone With the Wind in 1939, the highest-grossing film in the history of American cinema. Yet it’s also an evil work of racist propaganda that helped spur on the birth of the second Ku Klux Klan. As Richard Brody of The New Yorker wrote, the worst thing about Birth of a Nation is how good it is.
The first thing to keep in mind about the release of Birth of a Nation is that 1915 was exactly the same historical distance from 1865 as 2013 was from 1963. For Americans in 1915, the United States Civil War was their Kennedy assassination, and their War in Vietnam. The second thing is that, in September of 1914, the French had just fought the Germans at the First Battle of the Marne, a holocaust that produced a casualty rate 10 times the one that the Battle of Gettysburg did. What’s more, even though the Imperial German Army had been stopped short of Paris, the Germans still occupied the richest, and most industrialized part of France, and would continue to do so for 4 more years. It was only a matter of time before the American ruling class, who had extensive financial interests in Western Europe, would intervene. This brings us to the third, and final thing to realize when you watch Birth of a Nation. The people of the United States in 1915, with its huge population of German and Irish Americans, and with a burgeoning socialist movement, had no real desire to ride to the rescue of France, and of the British Empire. President Wilson not only had to jail socialists like Eugene Debs. He had to employ a lavishly funded campaign of propaganda led by advertising industry pioneers like George Creel, Walter Lippman, and Edward Bernays, before he could finally send the American people off to war.
As Ken Burns points out in his documentary The Civil War, the United States Civil War, along with the Franco-Prussian War, were the first two wars in history to be extensively photographed. In the 1870s and 1880s, there had in fact been so many glass plates showing portraits of soldiers, and the images of the dead, that many of them had simply been destroyed, used to build greenhouses. But while Americans had been looking at photographs for decades, motion pictures were still relatively new, and startling. An early showing of The Arrival of a Train, for example, a film by the Lumière brothers that had been released in 1895, had so terrified audiences that they had literally jumped out of their seats and tried to run out of the theater. The Birth of a Nation was the moment when all those tens of thousands of still photographs of the Battle of Gettysburg and Antietam, Grant’s Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg started to move, when their memories of the United States Civil War came alive. Many Civil War veterans were still alive in 1915. The 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, had included a reenactment of Pickett’s Charge, in which survivors of Pickett’s Charge, had participated. Griffith’s film brought Civil War veterans and their families back to their youth, put them up on screen in the form of Lilian Gish, Mae Marsh, Wallace Reid, and Raoul Walsh. It was, as Woodrow Wilson was reported to have said, “like history written in lightning.”
“And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true,” Wilson had added. Therein lies the problem. In 1915, Birth of a Nation may have looked a lot like history being written in lightening, but very little of it was true. As W. E. B. Du Bois would later point out in his seminal work of history Black Reconstruction in America, the same Radical Reconstruction” that appalled historians like William Dunning and filmmakers like D. W. Griffith was an experiment in radical democracy as important as the Paris Commune, the promise of a socialist revolution. In 1915, the liberation of the black race in the American South, if remembered, would set a dangerous example for the American working-class, which included millions of as of yet unassimilated immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. While the promise of Radical Reconstruction, which had been effectively defeated in the disputed Presidential Election 1876, when the Republican Party agreed to end military occupation of the South in exchange for the White House, it wasn’t enough. Every memory of Radical Reconstruction and Abolitionism had to be expunged from history, wiped off the face of the earth as surely as Leon Trotsky had been airbrushed out of photographs in Stalinist Russia.
So D.W. Griffith made Birth of a Nation, a film where the oppressed black working-class are rapists and murderers, and the blood sucking rich their victims.
Birth of a Nation opens in 1861. The grown children of two families, the southern Camerons, and the northern Stonemans, meet at the Cameron plantation in South Carolina. That Doctor Cameron is a doddery old man in his 60s and Austin Stoneman a vigorous man in his 40s is propaganda so subtle even people who deplore Birth of a Nation for its racism barely notice it. Austin Stoneman, a rising politician loosely modeled on Thaddeus Stevens, the fiery anti-slavery Congressman from Pennsylvania, also has a bi-racial maid. In another brilliant propagandistic lie, Griffith includes a scene where she gets “uppity” with Senator Charles Sumner. In the film, Sumner is offended that a bi-racial woman would refuse to pick up his hat. In reality, Sumner was not only as much of an abolitionist as Stevens, he was suffering from traumatic brain injury. In 1856, he had been beaten to within an inch of his life by the pro-slavery Southern congressman Preston Brooks, in the Senate itself, an assault that was later reputed to have inspired John Brown’s Pottawatomie Massacre. The historical Sumner was one of the leaders of Radical Reconstruction. He fought for the Emancipation Proclamation. He voted to impeach Andrew Johnson. He organized Freedman’s Bureaus. In spite of his stupid idea to require a literacy test for voting rights, he was, to use the modern term, a “white ally” of black people. In Birth of a Nation, he’s portrayed as just another “moderate” who gets angry that a biracial woman won’t defer to his “white privilege.”
The real head of the Cameron family is not the doddery old “Doctor Cameron,” who never seems to see any patients, but Ben Cameron, a young man in his 20s, who becomes friends with Phil Stoneman, the son of Austin Stoneman, and another “moderate.” When Ben Cameron, who would be later help found the Ku Klux Klan, finds a photo of Elsie Stoneman, Phil’s sister played by Lilian Gish, he falls so in love with her he steals it, and carries it with him through all four years of the Civil War. Vile racist propagandist though he was, D.W. Griffith not only knew how to write romantic melodrama like a great poet, he wrote it in “flashes of lightening,” to use Wilson’s phrase. When “Colonel” Ben Cameron is wounded in the Appomattox Campaign, and sent to a Union Army hospital, he meets Elsie Stoneman in the flesh. Unlike “Doctor” Cameron, Elsie Stoneman actually helps treat wounded soldiers. What Griffith has done is exactly what Chris Marker would later do in his haunting short film La Jetée. He has made a still-photograph move. He has conjured life out of an 4 year-old-image, realized the dreams of hundreds of thousands of Americans who, in 1915, had been looking at photographs of the Civil War for decades.
The racist propaganda of the second half of The Birth of a Nation has, of course, been widely deplored by historians of the left, and even of the right. Rarely, however, does anyone point out exactly why D. W. Griffith was so obsessed with the idea of miscegenation.
In Brian De Palma’s brutal gangster film Scarface, the Cuban immigrant Tony Montana, played by the Italian American actor Al Pacino, remarks that “in America first you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the women.” The image of the WASP Michelle Pfeiffer, for Tony Montana, therefore, becomes a symbol of “The American Dream.” Similarly, for Griffith’s sex-crazed “mulatto” politician Silas Lynch, and the would-be rapist “Gus,” the white vagina is more than just a warm hole to stick your dick inside. Elsie Stoneman’s vagina, and Lilian Gish’s image, are exactly what Daisy Buchanan’s voice would later become in The Great Gatsby, “money.”
Does anyone think that The Birth of a Nation would have made money if someone other than Lilian Gish had played Elsie Stoneman?
But D.W. Griffith’s agenda is very different from Brian De Palma’s. For De Palma the goal was just that, Elsie Stoneman’s vagina and Daisy Buchanan’s voice, money. Brian De Palma wanted to make money off a vulgar shock-fest, but he also wanted to have it both ways, to fool himself into thinking he was “criticizing” vulgar American capitalism in the form of the grotesque immigrant Tony Montana even as he was practicing vulgar American capitalism by giving us Tony Montana. Black people weren’t impressed by De Palma’s double dealing. They took him at his word. The image of Tony Montana is all over the hip hop world. He’s a hero.
For D.W. Griffith, on the other hand, the goal is a lot more sinister than just profit, and the comforting illusion of making politically relevant art. By casting black men as rapists, he can also erase the real history of Radical Reconstruction. The things black people actually wanted in 1865, freedom from slavery, the right to vote, economic opportunity, their rights as Americans, 40 acres and a mule, are reduced to a simple animalistic urge to rape. History is reduced, not only to biology, but to a travesty of biology, the pseudo-scientific racism so popular in the first half of the Twentieth Century. The assassination of Lincoln is portrayed, not as a white supremacist’s murder of the President who ended slavery, but almost as a coup by Austin Stoneman and the Radical Republicans. Nowhere in The Birth of a Nation does Griffith mention Andrew Johnson, the man who actually did become President in 1865, a southerner who was far more conservative and anti-black than Lincoln.
What’s more, The Birth of a Nation not only erases the history of Radical Reconstruction. It erases the history of feminism. An important part of the Abolitionist Movement was the early feminist movement. Black women and white women working together played almost as important a role in ending slavery as the Union Army. In Birth of a Nation, however, sisterhood is not powerful. Lydia Brown, Austin Stoneman’s “mulatto” housemaid helps Silas Lynch bind and gag Elsie Stoneman in preparation for her forced marriage to a man she hates. Lydia Hamilton Smith, the real “Lydia Brown,” an employee, and probably lover of the white Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, would have been horrified at the idea. Here she acts just like another drunken high-school football player from Steubenville, Ohio. Griffith was more than just a racist. He was a propagandist trying, and largely succeeding, to rewrite history.
In 1916, Thomas Dixon, the author of The Klansman, the novel on which the screenplay for The Birth of a Nation is based, would go on to to film a “sequel” to Birth of a Nation called The Fall of a Nation. The Fall of a Nation, now a lost film, but summarized in the New York Times review of that year, was the first “Red Dawn,” a fantasy about an imaginary German occupation of the United States.
How the Germans could have invaded the United States in 1916 when they were under blockade by the British navy is a question I doubt Dixon ever answered. But The Fall of a Nation does show that there is a direct line between pro-Ku-Klux-Klan historians like William Dunning, and the white supremacist Woodrow Wilson’s campaign of propaganda to get the United States into the First World War. While it’s unlikely that Dixon portrayed the occupying German army in The Fall of a Nation in the same way Griffith played black Americans in The Birth of a Nation, images of German soldiers as sex-crazed rapists were common in the British and American war propaganda of the time.
By 1920, therefore, not only had D.W. Griffith completed the destruction of the memories of Radical Reconstruction, he had fired some of the most effective shots in the first “Red Scare.” Fascist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the American Legion would later be (sometimes violently) repudiated in the 1920s. Prohibition, which was largely a club with which the nativist WASP majority could beat Southern and Eastern Europeans over the head, was repealed in the 1930s. But black Americans in the south would not get the vote until the 1960s and the image of the out of control black rapist lives on in the corporate media. From the NYC newspapers lies about “wolf packs” in the 1980s to the racist white police officer Darren Wilson’s self-serving justifications for the murder of Michael Brown to Donald Trump’s libel of Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” the images that D. W. Griffith used in The Birth of a Nation still play an effect role in preventing solidarity between blacks and whites. Griffith did not invent them, but he did use them to weaponize early Hollywood in the service of the ruling class. American cinema has been poorer ever since.
One only has to look at the Soviet Union, to the films of the great director Sergei Eisenstein, to realize what we missed out on.