History

The Birth of The Birth of a Nation

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America's first blockbuster feature film, D.W. Griffith's pro-Klan epic The Birth of a Nation, turns 95 today. I'll mark the occasion by trotting out two articles I wrote in 2005, one marking the movie's 90th birthday and the other noting the 90th birthday of an unpleasant organization inspired by the motion picture: the second Ku Klux Klan.

From the first piece:

Nine decades after its debut, critics still struggle to separate Birth's formal innovations from its racist themes. The general effect is to preserve a certain reverence for the picture but to dissuade people from enjoying it. That's not the worst possible result, but it does the director an injustice. If Griffith's racial paranoia is the most offensive element of the film, it is also the fuel for the movie's most powerful sequences. Roger Ebert once claimed that sophisticated audiences "find the early and wartime scenes brilliant, but cringe during the postwar and Reconstruction scenes"—that is, when the film's racism runs amok. I'm afraid I can't quite agree. In this movie, it's not so easy to disentangle the brilliant from the cringeworthy.

The uncomfortable truth about The Birth of a Nation is that it's at its best when it's at its worst—that the "acceptable" parts are usually sentimental and dull, while the vilest segments retain a weird power, as though the filmmaker's deepest anxieties were pouring directly onto the screen.

From the second:

The creepiest fan subculture in Hollywood history

[M]ost people are barely aware that there has been more than one KKK, let alone that the most notable Invisible Empire would have turned 90 years old this weekend. But the second Klan was radically different from both the Klan that emerged after the Civil War and the Klan that battled the civil rights movement in the '60s. It had its greatest strength outside the South, and approximately half its followers lived not in the countryside but in cities. Most of its members eschewed illicit violence, and when it was violent its victims often as not were white. (In some communities, violence was more likely to be wielded against the Klan than by it.) As you'd expect, it was racist, nativist, prohibitionist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Catholic, but its worldview wasn't always consistent or coherent: It may have been a united organization, something that was only barely true of the first Klan and was never true of the third, but it adopted different issues and tactics in different parts of the country, making it much harder to stereotype than its predecessor and its successors.

Above all, it was a fundamentally modern movement. It was inspired by a movie, advanced through advertising, and organized with techniques that might have been employed by a corporate sales force. In the early '20s it had between 1.5 and 5 million members, many of them at the center of political power. The Klan controlled the governments of Indiana, Oregon, and Colorado, elected other politicians across the country, and played a major role in the Democratic convention of 1924; its members included future president Harry Truman and future Supreme Court justice Hugo Black. Early scholars assumed that the secret society was overwhelmingly rural, fundamentalist, and driven—in one sociologist's words—by the "petty impotence of the small-town mind." Two waves of revisionist scholarship have destroyed those assumptions.

NEXT: How Many More Are Innocent?

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  1. “As you’d expect, it was racist, nativist, prohibitionist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Catholic”

    Translation: Obamaesque

  2. As you’d expect, it was racist, nativist, prohibitionist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Catholic, but its worldview wasn’t always consistent or coherent

    Just like the Tea Party!

    Haha, just kidding!

    *hides behind desk*

  3. “Raaaaacist!!”

  4. “Early scholars assumed that the secret society was overwhelmingly rural, fundamentalist, and driven?in one sociologist’s words?by the “petty impotence of the small-town mind.””

    So they allegedly clung to their guns and religion?

    1. There’d the “The” go???

      1. A Gobbler musta got it.

  5. …and driven?in one sociologist’s words?by the “petty impotence of the small-town mind.”

    This sort of elitist bigotry may be less violent, but it is no less worse than the racism it assumes for the common man.

    1. “but it is no less worse than the racism it assumes for the common man.”

      Only if you don’t find that “violence” thingee you mention in the first part of your sentence to be morally probelmattic…

    2. If the racism is more violent then is sure as hell is more worse. Not to say that the elitist bigotry is not bad.

      1. More worse is pretty worse. At least it wasn’t the most worser.

    3. we should build a memorial to the victims of elitist bigotry.

      for shame, america.

  6. I’ve heard Michael Bay is working on a reboot.

    1. Now that, I would pay to see.

    2. Dammit, I was going to mention the reboot.

    3. You are a horrible, horrible person.

      1. I note that in my planned comment, no mention of the Unmentionable Director was intended.

        Maybe Branagh? He needs a comeback picture. I’m rewatching Henry V–the man can direct when he feels like it.

        1. Unless Thor is it.

        2. Branagh sucks. Look, I can see dumping Emma Thompson, but for Helena Bonham Carter?!? Tim Burton did the same thing. It makes no sense!

          Also, his Frankenstein was stupid. If your Frankenstein movie doesn’t star Peter Cushing, just go away.

          1. Branagh doesn’t suck; he just lost his way. And you’re right, it happened when he ditched Emma Thompson. Who, incidentally, went off the rails a while back, too.

            He’s still a good actor, and I have hopes that he’ll direct a great film or two before he’s done.

            Frankenstein was a serious disappointment. I don’t think it was irredeemable, but it missed the boat somewhere. At least it was an attempt to follow the book more closely.

            1. Travis Bickle should not play Frankenstein’s monster. I think that’s pretty obvious even to Warty.

              You talkin’ to me, ProL?

              1. To be fair, that was back before De Niro started calling in all of his roles.

                Personally, I’d have cast that dude from Buckaroo Banzai who played the bad guy in Highlander. He was halfway there already.

                1. That does highlight where I think Branagh really did go wrong–he went Hollywood. He had some just phenomenal talent in Henry V, eschewing pretty much any pure “Hollywood” actors. Shoulda stuck with them.

                  When I watched it on DVD the other day, I called my sons in the room, pointed at a kid on screen and said, “That’s Batman.” Yep, Christian Bale, living with a much more gritty Judi Dench.

                2. Clancy Brown? No, no, dude: Ron Perlman.

                  1. You saw through my pretended ignorance. Yeah, Clancy Brown. As much as I like Ron Perlman, I stick to my first choice. Though either would be more apt than De Niro.

                    You know who might’ve worked? Liam Neeson. He’s a pretty big guy, and he’s a fine actor.

                    Of course, no one can equal Peter Boyle. Ever.

                    1. Ever seen Joe? Highly recommended.

                    2. I haven’t, though I’ve meant to. I do recall him in Where the Buffalo Roam.

                    3. Which I don’t particularly endorse, but he was entertaining, as always.

                  2. Ron Perlman as Frankenstein’s Monster? That’s full of win, right there.

                    1. Agreed, though I’m sticking with Clancy. Back then, that is. Not sure about today.

                    2. I believe Clancy Brown is still voicing Mr. Krabby on “Spongebob Squarepants”.

                    3. But can he still play Frankenstein?

  7. Sociologists get frustrated when their theories don’t pan out, and it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to assumptions or Marxist theory or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-rural sentiment or anti-business sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

  8. When I watched this film in highschool, I remember laughing out loud at just how ridiculous the racial stereotypes were.

    In fact, as I remember it, pretty much the entire class (black and white) thought it was hilarious.

    I’m sure it was cutting-edge when it came out, but at this point, all of the imagery has been turned into cliches worthy of ridicule.

    1. It all depends on when you watched it. Yeah, those people 95 years ago sure were primitive racists, unlike today’s enlightened beings.

    2. Well, they say if you live long enough you’ll eventually see everything. Maybe it’s true. These days, enlightened egalitarians have turned into cliches worthy of ridicule. It’s unfortunate most of them don’t realize it yet.

  9. The Klan controlled the governments of Indiana, Oregon, and Colorado, elected other politicians across the country

    Early scholars assumed that the secret society was overwhelmingly rural, fundamentalist, and driven?in one sociologist’s words?by the “petty impotence of the small-town mind.” Two waves of revisionist scholarship have destroyed those assumptions.

    Uhm, we have been anti-racist all of this time. From, from the very beginning. Look over there, Sarah Palin!

  10. Within a few months, the film’s admirers would include President Woodrow Wilson,

    One could argue that Wilson’s election was the impetus of the creation of the film. Wilson, a Klansman, was elected POTUS and the film was based on a play called “The Klansman”. It’s more akin to “An Inconvenient Truth” than anything else. Are there going to be morons talking about innovations in THAT film 90 years from now?

    Personally, I can’t see why anyone other than a film fetishist gives two shits about technique – it either adds to a story, detracts from it, or makes no difference. I consider the film to be agitprop, and damn effective agitprop at that. And it’s effectiveness has very little to do with camera and editing techniques. If anything, the expensive techniques caused budget shortfalls in other parts of the film which made it look downright inept in numerous spots.

    1. Was Senator Byrd in it too? How long was he in the Senate when this was released?

      1. I’m gonna guess that Robert Byrd Will be the next Dem congressperson to follow in Murtha’s footsteps.

        1. Call his constituents stupid rednecks?

          1. Murtha died today.

            1. Just now came across that on teh Googles.

        2. As they say, things happen in threes – Teddy, Murtha, ?????….

          Can we get a lotto going here?

  11. Um, do you really need to praise both The Birth of the Nation and the Klan in the same post? Is this really neccessary? Or are you trying to resemble a charactiture of a libertarian. I thought Ron Paul’s newsletters would have taught you that approaching these subjects in this manner is a Very Bad Idea.

    Or maybe you are just a closet racist. Really, what is the point of this post?

    1. Are you sure we’re reading the same article?

      1. He saw the coded messages to all of the other closet racists out there.

      2. Dog whistle! Dog whistle!

    2. do you really need to praise both The Birth of the Nation and the Klan in the same post?

      No. Were you under the impression that I did?

  12. I like how at the bottom of the Klan card it says “(turn me over.)”.

    1. Wasn’t that “Klucker” thing (from the card) in a Little Rascals episode? It was a burglar calling someone’s dad a “Kluck”. Sort of like how the Superman radio show used all the Klan secret wording as comedy words (heard about that on Penn Jillette’s radio show).

  13. The Klan controlled the governments of Indiana, Oregon, and Colorado

    Yankees all

  14. ‘Above all, it was a fundamentally modern movement. It was inspired by a movie, advanced through advertising, and organized with techniques that might have been employed by a corporate sales force.’

    And, as you previously mentioned, it was anti-Catholic.

    The Klan’s anti-Catholic views have a distinctly modern ring. As discussed in Philip Hamburger’s Separation of Church and State:

    ‘Separation became a crucial tenet of the Klan. . . . Both in the North and the South, members even recited in their “Klansmen’s Creed”: “I believe in the eternal Separation of Church and State.” Commenting on such vows, an “authoritative” writer, identified only as “931KNOIOK” ? explained: “The Klan is pledged to maintain inviolate and perpetuate forever the principle of complete separation of Church and State, and the Roman Catholics fight this, because no sincere and devout Roman Catholic does or is permitted to believe in the separation of Church and State. The Roman Catholic Church is first, last and forever opposed to the separation of Church and State and in favor of the absolute control and domination of the State by the Roman Catholic Church.”
    (pp. 408-09)

    1. (Note to secular-minded commenters – I didn’t call you Klansmen, I simply said that the Klan’s anti-Catholic views were very modern and up-to-date.)

    2. No, correction: the modern version goes like this and is often heard right here on Hit and Run:

      “[We are] pledged to maintain inviolate and perpetuate forever the principle of complete separation of religion and State, and the Muslims fight this, because no sincere and devout Muslim does or is permitted to believe in the separation of religion and State. Islam is first, last and forever opposed to the separation of religion and State and in favor of the absolute control and domination of the State by Shariah.”

      1. Well that’s true, but you might as well add the Baptists in there, too, since they’re the ones trying to put up copies of the 10 Commandments everywhere.

  15. ‘(In some communities, violence was more likely to be wielded against the Klan than by it.)’

    Communities like Notre Dame, whose students Kleaned the Klan’s Klocks, much to the chagrin of the Klan and Indiana University.

  16. The movie is a most significant one in the development of dramatic film, subject matter not withstanding. Art and theme can be seperated–we do it all the time. “The Godfather” made murderers sympathetic, as did “Bonnie and Clide.” Yet both films are lauded.

    1. “The Godfather” made murderers sympathetic

      I heard that by the year 2018, Italians will actually outnumber humans.

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