the REEL WORLD: 1915

The Birth of a Nation

This film, directed by D. W. Griffith, is a sweeping epic about the Civil War and Reconstruction. It concentrates on two families, the Stonemans and the Camerons, good friends divided by the war. You've probably heard about how controversial this film was (and is), and it's easy to understand why: for starters, its alternative title is "The Clansman." Its underlying assumptions are that all noble, thinking white people will realize that of course slavery is moral and acceptable and that the slaves are not much better than animals. A mulatto (played, of course, by a white man in blackface) is given political power by a Northerner, and as thanks he kidnaps and tries to rape the Northerner's daughter. The members of the new Ku Klux Klan are portrayed as heroic, riding in on horseback to save the poor, beleaguered, right-thinking white folks under siege by the rebellious slaves.

The images and narrative structure are carefully calculated to arouse strong feelings of racism; I understand the Klan still uses this film to recruit new members. It's horrifying to watch. Nonetheless, this film is of crucial importance to the history of film. Griffith created Hollywood's first epic; he developed many technical innovations that have influenced movie making ever since. It's disturbing -- but also very telling of the racial climate in 1915 America -- that all that innovation and the grand scale were used to promote such repugnant ends.

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Emily Way (
Last updated July 9, 1998