There’s been lots published this weekend about the 100th anniversary of D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation — about how its technical greatness and unprecedented box-office success were at least matched and arguably surpassed by the vileness of its racist depictions of African Americans.
By one way of reckoning, this week — February 8, to be exact — can be called the 100th birthday of the medium that many of us have spent our lives enthralled with: the feature film. But don’t expect any parades, fireworks, grand speeches, or other shows of celebration. That’s because the film that premiered at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles on February 8, 1915, was D. W. Griffith’s The Clansman, soon to be retitled The Birth of a Nation — the most virulently racist major movie ever released in the U.S.
Birth Of A Nation is the movie where many of the values associated with American filmmaking—complex intercutting, massed crowds of extras contrasted with close-ups of actors, carefully edited suspense and chase scenes—get their first really clear, fully formed expression. It’s also unquestionably white supremacist and racist. It represents a key point in the history of American art, and is animated by some of the ugliest rhetoric America ever produced.
The film is credited with reviving the racist KKK, who adopted it as a recruitment tool. “The Ku Klux Klan had been kind of a dead organisation by 1915, but when the film [came out and became a hit] the KKK was refounded, capitalised on [the film’s success] and in the 1920s became a massive organisation at the peak of nativist fervour in the United States,” says Paul McEwan.
“The Birth of a Nation” was the last straw for [William Monroe] Trotter. A proud intellectual (Harvard’s first black Phi Beta Kappa student) and a proud “race man,” Trotter was appalled, like many African-Americans, by Griffith’s film. And he was appalled that President Woodrow Wilson, whom he had rallied black voters to support, had screened “The Birth of a Nation” in the White House — the first film to be shown there.
What makes “Birth’’ most offensive is its depiction of its black characters — all of the prominent ones performed by white actors in blackface — during Reconstruction. Griffith depicts defeated Southerners being terrorized (and even disenfranchised from voting) by illiterate, corrupt and uncouth former slaves (seeking interracial marriage) under the influence of white Northern carpetbaggers. (A view still held by many 1915 historians, but long ago discredited).
“Long ago discredited,” yes, but still at least indirectly influential. Modern historians have given Reconstruction a bit of the attention that it deserves, but there’s been exactly one hugely commercially successful depiction of that period in the American story, and it’s Griffith’s movie.
Whether audiences at the time of The Birth of a Nation‘s release accepted Griffith’s vision, or whether they were repulsed by it and just wanted to forget the whole thing, it’s not hard to see how those attitudes could get passed along — through families, and through our schools, and through our culture in general. And with no competing mainstream force to counter the impressions left by such a film, what’s to stop them from lingering among us?
Which brings me to The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch. More specifically, it brings me to a period in Lynch’s long life not covered by the main text in my upcoming book with Don Tate.
Our book focuses on his early years — his rise from slavery to the U.S. House of Representatives in just ten years. But after his stints in Congress, and after his service as a major in the Army during the Spanish-American War, Lynch became a historian. He had a central goal in mind: “placing before the public accurate and trustworthy information relative to Reconstruction” in the wake of much misinformation about that period.
From the timeline in The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch:
1913 — Writes The Facts of Reconstruction to correct racist distortions put forth by white historians.
1915 — The Birth of a Nation, a Hollywood film misrepresenting Reconstruction and glorifying the Klan, becomes wildly popular and warps Americans’ views of history for generations to come.
His timing, you can see, wasn’t great. And, more crucially, and his medium was no match for Griffith’s.
But John Roy Lynch had — and has — history on his side. And I remain optimistic that his vision can ultimately win out.