History Writ with Lightning

By | Feb 8, 2012

‘The Birth of a Nation’ was produced and directed by D.W. Giffith and released on February 8, 1915. It starred Lillian Gish, Henry Walthall and Mae Walsh. The 3 hour 10 minute film was originally presented in two parts separated by an intermission. The film cost $110,000 (over 2 Million in 2006) and grossed over 10 million ($300 in 2006). In 1992 the United States Library of Congress deemed it “culturally significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.

It is a story of Northern Stoneman family and the Cameron family from Piedmont, South Carolina. Through their eyes we see how their friendship is affected by the Civil War. The consequences of the War in their lives are shown in connection to major historical events, like the development of the Civil War itself, Lincoln’s assassination, and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan.

The movie was based on Thomas Dixon Jr’s ‘The Clansman’. Dixon had committed his entire writing career arguing in favor of the superiority of whites and the Ku Klux Klan’s use of violence. After being angered by a staging ‘Uncle Brown’s Cabin’ in 1901 he decided to produce a play that offered his own interpretation of race relations. He said: “My object is to teach the North, the young North, what it has never known—the awful suffering of the white man during the dreadful Reconstruction period. I believe that Almighty God anointed the white men of the South by their suffering during that time . . . to demonstrate to the world that the white man must and shall be supreme.”

After the release of the film in 1915, the NAACP and other groups protested the film. The NAACP published a pamphlet titled ‘Fighting a Vicious Film: Protest Against The Birth of a Nation’. W. E. B. Du Bois published scathing reviews in ‘The Crisis’, which helped spur a debate among the National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures to whether the film should be shown in New York. In the years after Griffith released ‘The Birth of a Nation’ there were massive race riots throughout the country, peaking in 1919.

President and former history professor Woodrow Wilson after viewing the film at the White House proclaimed it not only historically accurate, but like “history writ with lightning.” Many whites feeling it to be a truthful and accurate portrayal of racial politics flocked to join the rejuvenated Ku Klux Klan.

‘The Birth of a Nation’ went on to become one of the most admired and profitable films produced by Hollywood during its silent phase. Many Film scholars agree that it is the most important and a key film in American movie history. It contains many new cinematic innovations and refinements, technical effects and artistic advancements with a formative influence on future films.


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