Friday A/V Club: D.W. Griffith and the Censors

A tale of movies, racism, censorship, and zombies


Dorian Lynskey has an interesting article in Slate about the battles over banning The Birth of a Nation, a D.W. Griffith film that is both famous for revolutionizing the craft of cinema and infamous for being a racist homage to the Ku Klux Klan. When the movie was released in 1915, Lynskey explains, a


moral panic over the depiction of crime and vice in such movies as Traffic in Souls and The Inside of the White Slave Traffic was feeding conservative demands for constraints, with Congress already mulling a federal censorship board. The most successful legislation to that point, a 1912 bill to ban interstate sales of boxing films, had a blatantly racist motive: the desire to suppress footage of boxer Jack Johnson defeating "great white hope" James Jeffries. Free-speech advocates fought back against the rising tide. Vetoing an ordinance to introduce movie censors in New York City, Mayor William Jay Gaynor wrote, "Do they know what they are doing? Do they know anything of the history and literature of the subject? Do they know that the censorships of past ages did immeasurably more harm than good?"

But in February 1915, just as Birth was making its way into theaters, filmmakers were dealt a serious blow by the Supreme Court. In Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, the court ruled that movies were not worthy of the same free-speech protections as the printed press. The ruling, which prevailed until 1952, gave the green light for states to create their own censorship bodies.

With Birth, the loudest calls for censorship came from a group rather different from the crowd that had objected to the Johnson-Jeffries footage. Now the NAACP was leading the charge to suppress a picture, though the organization's leadership was divided on the subject (as was the anti-racist left in general, with Progressive censors facing off against civil libertarians). The film's foes wound up winning a partial victory, albeit one that wounded their cause in the long run:

I wish more movies would feature the phrase GRIT YOUR TEETH IN SILENT INDIGNATION on their posters.

events beyond the NAACP's control swung the censors in their favor. During World War I, several states quashed Birth lest it foster animosity between white and black soldiers. After the war, the dramatic rise and fall of the new Klan (which Dixon, ironically, considered "a menace to American democracy" and doggedly opposed) made the movie increasingly toxic. To legislators, a blow against Birth was a blow against the Klan….

Even as the new climate of censorship helped the NAACP in its effort to ban the movie, it had unintended consequences for black representation in motion pictures. As Thomas Cripps explains in Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900–1942, nervous studios shied away from portraying black characters at all and the Hays Code prohibited any portrayal of interracial relationships, positive or negative. In 1920 black director Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates, which excoriated lynch mobs and the Klan, was banned in several places for the same reasons as Birth: It could incite racial tension. Thus the weapons taken up against a racist film were turned on an anti-racist one.

If you've never seen Birth of a Nation, you can watch the whole thing here; Within Our Gates is here. To illustrate what a long shadow Griffith's picture casts, I've embedded one clip from it below—the part that supports my pet theory that Birth contains the seeds of the modern zombie movie:

If you watch westerns, you probably noticed that the sequence also includes a prototype for The Cavalry Charging to the Rescue.

Further reading: For my thoughts on Birth as a movie, go here. For a look back at Birth's role in reviving the Ku Klux Klan, go here. For a history of film censorship from the Progressive Era til today, go here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.

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  1. Racism makes me grit my teeth in silent indignation.

    As do the Dutch.

    1. Nobody likes squareheads.

    2. I move to censor you, SIR!

      1. You haven’t filed the proper forms to intiate a motion to censorship. There are no approvals on record acknowling said authorization to initiate a motion to censorship.

        After you file those, we can talk about the process for actually filing a motion to censor.

        1. /quietly walks away with quizzical puzzlement.

          1. No gritting of the teeth in silent indignation?

  2. It’s interesting that the poster says the movie was “founded on” The Clansman. I wonder when movie posters started saying “based on” a source novel.

    1. Mid-1930s it seems.

  3. These same people wouldn’t bat a single eye if a movie about killing a President or piece of art pissing on Jesus on Good Friday came out. How is a censor any different than folks who took part in book burning? How does the act of ‘sanitizing’ a work of literature anything but grotesque and affront to art and liberty?

    I highly doubt if a black version of ‘Birth of a Nation’ would bother the NAACP much because, you know, according to the narrative they can’t be racist and because of, you know, slavery (the only people to ever be touched by the oldest of human activities (next to farming and prostitution and drawing on caves) deems it be so…in perpetuity. Now give me my money.

    It still blows my mind people still think this way and look to do so despite the evidence it doesn’t work.

    Censorship is not only the last refuge of an intellectual pygmy (with all due respect to pygmies) but of political scoundrels and immoral jackasses.

    1. I would think that the people calling for censorship in the early 20th century would not have looked kindly on a plot about killing a president or a blasphemous piece of art.

      Contemporary progressives, on the other hand…

      I’m trying to imagine what a black version of Birth of a Nation would be. Couldn’t really be in teh US unless it was an alternative history sort of thing. Maybe Mugabe’s thugs expelling white farmers from their land in Zimbabwe.

      1. I just finished reading ‘The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels’. There’s no doubt in my mind, the sound logic and science in the book would be a target for banning (if not incarceration) by the modern left because it directly challenges their incoherent narrative.

  4. And there are idiots who think the Breen Code had no threat of government force behind its institution.

    1. Nah, it’s more that I find it interesting that the most censorious part of American film history was Hollywood caving into a Catholic boycott rather than State Censorship Boards or party hacks like Will Hays.

      1. Also I’m pretty sure that Joe Breen and co. were worried that federal censorship would be controlled by….Protestants!

        And is it true that the reason the Code forbade couples in the same bed because it was banned in the UK?

  5. In Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, the court ruled that movies were not worthy of the same free-speech protections as the printed press.

    Fourth-generation imbecile Justice Holmes was part of the unanimous decision.

  6. ” (as was the left in general, with Progressive censors facing off against civil libertarians)”

    Didn’t Wilson have a private screening in the White House? I don’t think the old progs were as racially sensitive as you indicate.

    1. Wilson was certainly a racist piece of shit. The progressive movement was not united in the cause of anti-racism anyway.
      It is also possible to be racist and oppose a film promoting the KKK.

    2. I don’t think the old progs were as racially sensitive as you indicate.

      I meant that portion of the left that was anti-racist to begin with, not Progressives writ large. (See my comments here about the ways the Klan itself had Progressive connections.) Maybe I’ll add “anti-racist” before “left” to make the meaning clearer.

      1. (See my comments here about the ways the Klan itself had Progressive connections.)

        There is an actual historical reason why the “reform” candidate in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was a Klansman.

      2. People should read that “Hooded Progressivism” article. Far too many similarities between the Klan of the 1920’s and the SJW’s of the 2010’s.

        1. What article is that and where can we find it?

  7. I do wish the enthusiastic censors of the Progressive Left would learn this lesson, but they won’t. They never believe that the powers they want to grant the State will EVER be used against THEM, THEY are the Anointed. And so again and again they turn the State into a machine powerful enough to do what they want, and it gets taken over by a nut like Mao or a beast like Stalin, and wouldn’t you know it one of the very first groups to get liquidated is the Progressive Intellectual Left.

    It would be funny if, as a NON-Progressive intellectual, I wasn’t in group #2.

    At the end of the 19th Century, when Progressivism hadn’t been extensively tried, there was some excuse for blind optimism. Now, at the beginning of the 21st, after a Century of Progressive failures and the attendant mass murder and misery, the remaining Progressives are far more stupid and willfully ignorant than the Bible-Thumping Christians they despise.

    1. But C.S.P. you’re not nuanced enough to understand history. Mao and Stalin did ‘some good things’ for their countries as I’ve been told a few times over the years.

    1. Flemur, in the early 20th C, nobody was more conservative than a conservative Surn Democrat.

      Kevin R

  8. If you’ve never seen Birth of a Nation, you can watch the whole thing here;

    I’ve been trying to watch it but a silent film consisting, so far, of people standing around talking is **really boring**. But since it’s silent, you can watch in on fast-forward.

    1. I thought it was an interesting film. It gives you some insight into how the events around the time of the Civil War were understood while those events were still within living memory. Given the tendency of history to be re-written by the victors, especially after anyone in a position to squawk is long dead, the movie is a valuable artifact.

  9. Oops, forgot this – the 1912 censorship bill was called “Sims Act” after Democrat (= a “conservative” to sleazy Slate) Thetus W. Sims.

    Go Slate!

    1. Why do you think that a Democrat from the early 10th century wouldn’t be properly called a “conservative”? Democrats used to be pretty conservative in a lot of cases. And support for an anti-miscegenation amendment or law would be a pretty conservative position at the time.

      1. Conservative, like progressive, is a relative term. Saying (or at least unsubtly implying) that a Southern Democrat from the early 20th century has a lot in common with a modern-day Republican is disingenuous. Now if said Republican speaks of said Democrat highly, that’s a different story.

        The problem with many progressives (like those at Slate) is that they project their own failings on everyone else. Despite the fact that most Republicans would gladly excoriate southern Democrats from the 1910s, somehow the two groups must be connected. Yet try to get these same progressives to unequivocally condemn Wilson or FDR, or Margaret Sanger, or any number of other wholly loathsome people who have been closely associated with progressivism.

      2. Well there were Progressive Southern Democrats as there was a lot of factionalism at the time. In addition the Progressive Southern Democrats had a tendency to racebait more than the conservatives. One of the reasons Jim Crow was developed was due to Democratic factionalism and the desire to accuse the other faction of being pro-black.

  10. DW Griffith and the Censors

    Saw them open for Weezer in Kansas City back in 01. They were awesome.

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  12. You should have mentioned how the controversy ler to his next film- “intolerance”

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