8 February 1915: “The most controversial film in Hollywood history” is released
The 1910s was a fertile time for cinema. Film production started moving to Los Angeles in the US during the First World War and the understanding of cinema as a storytelling artform like the one we know today was developing.
One of the biggest successes of the era for American film was ‘The Birth of a Nation’, directed D. W. Griffith and released on this day in 1915. It’s a black and white film that chronicles the American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination through the story of two families.
When it was released, it was immediately popular with white American audiences. Produced at a huge cost, it needed to make revenue and it did. Until 1939’s ‘Gone With the Wind’, it was the highest-grossing film in history. It was the first ever film to be specially screened for a President in the White House, having a showing for Woodrow Wilson on 18 February 1915.
Critics for major papers like the Los Angeles Times called it “the greatest picture ever made” and film studies courses have venerated the film’s pioneering use of visual techniques. Close-ups, tracking shots and new editing techniques were all seen for the first time in a major motion picture. ‘The Birth of a Nation’ has featured in many university film courses in the US thanks to this.
But the film isn’t without controversy. From day one, black audiences have pointed out that the African-American characters are given racist depictions, mostly by white actors in blackface, and act out harmful stereotypes.
Based on the 1905 novel ‘The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan’ by Thomas Dixon Jr. the film charts a similar narrative that depicts black and white communities as unable to live together as well and glorifies the formation of the Klu Klux Klan.
In fact, ‘The Birth of a Nation’ was so impactful with its imagery in support of the Klu Klux Klan, it is considered a major factor in the resurrection of the white supremacist, right-wing terrorist group.
The film’s use of the white cloaks and burning crosses became signifying iconography of the Second Klu Klux Klan, started in 1915 by William Joseph Simmons at Stone Mountain, near Atlanta.
Many film critics argue that the film’s pioneering use of visual techniques still make it an important one to study for film history. But with its role in reigniting a white supremacist hate group and inciting racial violence across the 20th century in the US, few films have as much blood on their hands.