Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Birth of a nation divided


Upon its release in 1915, the film “Birth of a Nation” caused a widespread debate on whether it should be considered and accepted as a great work of art. This is because its subject matter contains a romantic representation of the Old South during the Reconstruction Era, and glorifies the Ku Klux Klan’s acts of brutality and hatred towards African-Americans. However, because the film was one of the very first to use narrative storytelling in cinema, it has been regarded as highly innovative.

“Birth of a Nation” caused an argument over its classification as art or blatant propaganda, revitalized the hostilities of the Ku Klux Klan against African-Americans, and promoted censorship battles. But it also influenced Hollywood narrative style.

The controversy that this film created can be traced directly to the context of its reception in the historical and ideological perspectives of race relations in the U.S at the time of its release. This also includes the fact that film was a fairly new art form; one in which such styles and subject content had never before been seen to such a degree.

If potential audience members saw an advertisement for this film, they would see the poster image of a man dressed in a Ku Klux Klan uniform riding on a bucking horse dressed in the same garb. Initially, the person could pass some judgment on what the film was about, and what that very image conveyed. This, too, was part of the reception context for this film, because the image of a gallant Klansman had never been seen before in such a broadly published and innovative medium. Thus it sparked instant controversy.

However, the history of American race relations was the aspect of the film that director D.W. Griffith ultimately did not have control over. At the time of the film’s release, President Woodrow Wilson, and other political leaders had maintained the “separate but equal” laws and mentality in the U.S. Although it would be decades before such inequality would be overthrown, there remained a population of people that were reluctant to recognize African-Americans as citizens, let alone human beings, and held angry sentiments toward the post-Civil War treatment of white Southerners.

Some of these people took part in being members of the Ku Klux Klan, and in reality terrorized and murdered many African-Americans. So, when “Birth of a Nation” was released, the country was starkly divided, as it had been, on the issue of treatment of African-Americans.

“Birth of a Nation” glorified a white, divine rule of America, where blacks, mulattos and “disloyal” white Americans were inferior, brutish and ignorant.

Some audiences and critics opposed it in this respect, particularly the NAACP, defining it as being an overtly racist film that was so offensive it should be withdrawn from exhibition. Censorship battles and race rioting ensued, but ultimately it was decided that under the U.S. Constitution, Griffith was guaranteed the right of freedom of speech.

Those who assumed more artistic readings of the film regarded it as cinematically innovative. This was because Griffith’s use of intercutting created a sense of suspense and tension regarding interracial relations. He used an approach to causal plot development and an editing style that hadn’t been seen in earlier films. Cinema had been a realm of spectacle and vaudeville for years, and his film brought an end to nickelodeons and created a movement toward multiplex exhibition of films as a serious medium. Ultimately what has been widely accepted now is a more negotiated reading of the film due to reevaluation of the reception contexts. All of the initial responses to the film, whether it was in the form of protest, adoration, or indifference, are significant to the time when it was released. Although the film still glorifies white supremacy in a historically inaccurate way, it is still a groundbreaking film, cinematically speaking. This is because critics and audiences came to understand that although the meaning of the film implicates individual racial sentiment, good or bad, it could be a simultaneously beautiful, inventive and, unfortunately, racist work of art.

Emily Felder is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected].


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    DuderonomySep 14, 2011 at 10:19 am

    Well did you ever see the film “Idi Amin Dada”? It’s in the Criterion Collection, which means the film experts think the world of it, and it’s basically a document of how maniacal General Idi Amin was. For many who suffered under his rule, the film is probably remarkably obnoxious, but for the rest of the viewing world, it’s a distant enough subject to see it as more artistic than sadistic.

    I guess the same goes for Birth of a Nation or any other movie that glorifies white supremacy in this country. The people who have suffered under that same system of oppression will understandably see it as a hideous document of a living nightmare – and everyone else will be left to debate the artistic merits of the film.

    This says nothing of the role of “satire” in political/race-oriented art. For example, Randy Newman’s song “Rednecks” or TV show “All In The Family”