The Birth of a Nation, originally called The Clansman, is a 1915 American silent epic drama film directed by D. W. Griffith and starring Lillian Gish. The screenplay is adapted from Thomas Dixon Jr.’s 1905 novel and play The Clansman. Griffith co-wrote the screenplay with Frank E. Woods and produced the film with Harry Aitken.
The Birth of a Nation is a landmark of film history, lauded for its technical virtuosity. It was the first 12-reel film ever made and, at three hours, also the longest up to that point. Its plot, part fiction and part history, chronicles the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth and the relationship of two families in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras over the course of several years—the pro-Union (Northern) Stonemans and the pro-Confederacy (Southern) Camerons. It was originally shown in two parts separated by an intermission, and it was the first to have a musical score for an orchestra. It pioneered close-ups, fade-outs, and a carefully staged battle sequence with hundreds of extras (another first) made to look like thousands. It came with a 13-page “Souvenir Program”. It was the first motion picture to be screened in the White House, viewed there by President Woodrow Wilson, his family, and members of his cabinet.
The film was controversial even before its release and has remained so ever since; it has been called “the most controversial film ever made in the United States” and “the most reprehensibly racist film in Hollywood history”. Lincoln is portrayed positively, a friend of the South, unusual for a narrative that promotes the Lost Cause ideology. The film has been denounced for its racist depiction of black Americans. The film portrays African Americans (many of whom are played by white actors in blackface) as stupid and sexually aggressive toward white women. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is portrayed as a heroic force, necessary to preserve American values, protect the women, and maintain white supremacy.
In response to the film’s depictions of black people and Civil War history, African Americans across the United States organized and protested. In Boston and other localities, black leaders tried to have it banned on the basis that it inflamed racial tensions and could incite violence. The NAACP spearheaded an unsuccessful campaign to ban the film. Griffith’s indignation at efforts to censor or ban the film motivated him to produce Intolerance the following year.
In spite of its divisiveness, The Birth of a Nation was a huge commercial success and profoundly influenced both the film industry and American culture. The film has been acknowledged as an inspiration for the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, which took place only a few months after its release. In 1992, the Library of Congress deemed the film “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used predominantly by non-black performers to portray a caricature of a black person.
In the United States the practice gained popularity during the 19th century and contributed to the spread of racial stereotypes such as the “happy-go-lucky darky on the plantation” or the “dandified coon”. By the middle of the century, blackface minstrel shows had become a distinctive American artform, translating formal works such as opera into popular terms for a general audience. Early in the 20th century, blackface branched off from the minstrel show and became a form in its own right. In the United States, blackface declined in popularity beginning in the 1940s and into the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, generally considered highly offensive, disrespectful, and racist by the turn of the 21st century, though the practice (or similar-looking ones) continues in other countries.