Civil Liberties

The Birth of The Birth of a Nation


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.