Race, Rage & Redemption Film Series kicked off with The Birth of a Nation.
With the announcement of The Mark Twain House & Museum’s Race, Rage & Redemption film series, the selection that has drawn the most shock and concern is, surprisingly, almost 100 years old. One could not rightly say that D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (screened on April 4th) is polarizing in the way that Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, a film we will be screening on June 13th, divides audiences. There is no doubt that Griffith’s three hour silent film is an epic piece of moviemaking. The Birth of a Nation has been inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. The American Film Institute declared it one of the top 100 films of all time. Until the release of Gone with the Wind, it was the highest grossing film ever making $10 million and by 1950, it had earned $50 million total. It was the first film in American History to be screened in the White House, for President Woodrow Wilson.
Much like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Birth of a Nation was hugely popular and provoked controversy upon release. While Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin supported the abolitionist cause and Twain’s Huckleberry Finn decried the backwards Jim Crow Era, the controversy surrounding this movie is the naked racism on display. Blackface, examples of blacks as drunken and sexually aggressive brutes, and the glorification of the Ku Klux Klan make this landmark film a rarity today. Of course, the fact that the movie is silent and runs slightly over three hours does not help.
Founded in 1909, the NAACP protested the film’s release in 1915 with pickets and boycotts. The movie was banned in some cities and incited riots in others. It emboldened gangs of white men to attack blacks and is believed to have been the cause of a murder of a black teenager in Indiana. The most damaging result of the film was likely the use of the movie as a recruitment tool for the KKK. Some believe it inspired the group to reorganize in the 1920s after a post-Reconstruction lull. He adapted the film from the 1905 novel and play, “The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan” written by Thomas Dixon, Jr., a Baptist Minister, playwright and state legislator. The book, and its subsequent play,were written as a warning to Northerners against desegregation, portraying blacks as brutes and the KKK as necessary for law and order.
D.W. Griffith’s father was a colonel was in the Confederate Army. In a newsreel, when asked, “When you made The Birth of a Nation, did you feel as though it was true?” Griffith responded, “The Klan at that time was needed. It served a purpose. Yes, I think it’s true.” One year later, chastened by the protests and backlash, Griffith released the anti-prejudice film, Intolerance. Of his masterwork, The Birth of a Nation, film critic and Mark Twain fan Roger Ebert says the following:
“"The Birth of a Nation is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil."
Two other interesting facts: a sequel was released in 1916, directed by the Klansman novelist Thomas Dixon, entitled, The Fall of a Nation. No prints are known to exist. On May 17th at 7:30 p.m., The Mark Twain House & Museum and the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center will present “Rebirth of a Nation,” a remixed look at D.W. Griffith’s racist film. With a hip-hop and electronic score by artist DJ Spooky, the film is 100 minutes long and will be preceded by a lecture with DJ Spooky himself and a Q&A. We hope you will join us on May 17th. Tickets for the DJ Spooky lecture and screening of Rebirth of a Nation are on sale now at (860) 280-3130.