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:

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.