I’d like to get back to the history of blockbusters, because it’s going to help us understand how big movies like Superman work, and what audiences respond to. A few weeks ago in “Dawn of the Blockbuster“, I wrote about the 1913 Italian epic Quo Vadis, which was the first feature film specifically designed to amaze the audience with grandeur and spectacle. Today, I want to talk about The Birth of a Nation, the 1915 American movie which was more popular and more profitable than any other film in the first three decades of motion pictures.
The Birth of a Nation is one of the most influential films ever made, an eye-popping, jaw-dropping spectacle that invented most of what we know as the language of cinema. It’s also one of the most evil films ever made, a grotesque three-hour Ku Klux Klan recruitment film that grievously damaged race relations in America, in ways that we’re still feeling today. Sometimes movies can be several things at the same time.
The Birth of a Nation was based on a 1905 novel and play by Thomas Dixon called The Clansman. Dixon traveled with the play across the country, and between acts, he made speeches like this:
“My object is to teach the North what it has never known — the awful suffering of the white man during the dreadful Reconstruction period. I believe that Almighty God anointed the white men of the South by their suffering, during that time immediately after the Civil War, to demonstrate to the world that the white man must and shall be supreme.”
So that’s what The Birth of a Nation is about: the superiority of the white race, and the duty of white people to suppress Black people, and keep them away from power. Sometimes people refer to this movie as “controversial”, or talk about its racist overtones. It does not have racist overtones. It is specifically designed to convince white Americans that they should hate and fear Black Americans.
The film was directed by D.W. Griffith, and it was three hours long — twice as long as any previous American film. Griffith expertly crafted the movie to get the audience involved with the characters, evoking strong feelings with massive spectacle scenes.
During the film, you can watch Griffith invent all of the techniques that make good movies, in real time. This was the first movie to feature close-ups, and the first to film the same scene from multiple angles, so that the camera can cut from one character to another. It was the first movie to use cross-cutting, going back and forth between a scene happening indoors and another scene outdoors, to show that they’re happening at the same time. It was the first to use an original musical score, played by an orchestra along with the film. It was the first to feature natural outdoor settings, night photography, high angle shots, low angle shots, panoramic long shots, flashbacks, dissolves and the iris effect.
In one film, Griffith developed almost every basic technique that directors used for the next hundred years. It is astounding.
The film opened in Los Angeles in January 1915, and ran for 22 weeks. In February, it was shown in the White House to President Woodrow Wilson, his cabinet, and members of Congress and the Supreme Court. In March, it opened in New York at the Liberty Theatre, charging prices that went up to an unheard-of $2 for the best seats, and it stayed in that theater for an unprecedented 44 weeks.
By the end of the silent era, The Birth of a Nation grossed $18 million, and was the most profitable film in history until Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released, more than two decades later.
It was the first American blockbuster, and it earned unparalleled success around the country. Also, it was a how-to guide for spreading white supremacy.
The movie has two parts, with an intermission in the middle. The first part is about the happy plantation days in the Old South, leading up to the Civil War. The second part is about the horrors of the Reconstruction era, when the rest of America told the Old South to get its shit together, which the South categorically refused to do.
Part 1 introduces two families — the Stonemans, a pro-Union family from Pennsylvania, and the Camerons, a Confederate family from South Carolina. Both families have a number of adult children — two boys and a girl for the Stonemans, and three boys and two girls for the Camerons — because the story needs some of the young men to die in the war in the first half, and a bunch of young women to get menaced by Black guys in the second half.
The film opens with the Stoneman boys visiting the Camerons’ plantation in Piedmont, South Carolina, where Phil Stoneman falls in love with Margaret Cameron, while contented slaves pick cotton behind them. Ben Cameron, the hero of the film, falls in love with a picture of Phil’s sister, Elsie. The slaves, who are treated very well by their masters, dance happily for the white visitors, during one of the many breaks in their not at all strenuous workday.
Abolitionists in the North demand an end to slavery, and declare war on the South. Platoons of brave soldiers march off to war, cheered on by the citizens of Piedmont. But things don’t go well in the war, and a regiment of Black soldiers invade Piedmont — bursting into the Cameron house to frighten the white women, which is apparently what Black people like best.
Tod Stoneman and Duke Cameron — shown at the beginning as being great friends — find themselves on opposite sides of the war, and they happen to meet on the battlefield and get shot at the same time. They die tragically, in each other’s arms.
Confederate soldier Ben Cameron leads an important battle and is nicknamed “the Little Colonel”, but he gets wounded and captured, ending up in a hospital in Washington DC. At the hospital, he finally meets Elsie Stoneman — the woman he’s been pining for, based on her photograph — and the two fall in love.
The Confederacy loses the war, and President Lincoln is portrayed as being conciliatory toward the South. But Lincoln is assassinated at Ford’s Theater, and the Reconstruction era begins.
Part 2 opens with a title card that introduces “the agony which the South endured that a nation might be born.”
A further card announces, “This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and Reconstruction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race of people of today.” This is absolutely not the case.
The main villain of the second half is Silas Lynch, a mixed-race politician from the North who carpetbags his way to South Carolina to promote equality for the freed slaves. He’s played by a white actor in blackface, as are all of the characters of color with important roles in the film, backed up with actual African-Americans in the background.
Lynch is referred to throughout as a “mulatto”, which if you’re not familiar is an outdated term meaning that he’s half-Black and half-white. He is therefore treacherous and disgusting, and his attraction to Elsie Stoneman is just this side of criminal.
During Reconstruction, things go badly for white people in Piedmont. Black people dance and party in the street, while Northern carpetbaggers encourage them to stop working in the fields. Ben Cameron and his sister are menaced on the street by a group of Black soldiers, and Lynch tells Ben, “This sidewalk belongs to us as much as it does to you, ‘Colonel’ Cameron.” This concept of equality between the races is clearly intolerable and unjust.
Ben meets with white leaders, and details further outrages, including a legal case that was “tried before a negro magistrate, and the verdict rendered against the whites by the negro jury.” It turns out that spending a hundred years importing a huge number of Black people in bondage has an impact on the racial makeup of the population.
Leading up to the 1870 election, Radical Republicans from the North promise the freed slaves that they’ll get forty acres and a mule. Their signs read “Equal Rights, Equal Politics, Equal Marriage” — just one of many horror-inducing references to the idea of Black men taking possession of white women.
On election day, Black people are encouraged to vote, and white people are turned away at the polls. Black candidates win, and Silas Lynch becomes Lieutenant Governor.
Then comes the big legislature scene, which for my money is the craziest part of the movie. The title card calls it “the riot in the Master’s Hall,” with “the negro party in control in the State House of Representatives, 101 blacks against 23 whites.”
The card claims that the scene is “an historical facsimile of the State House of Representatives of South Carolina as it was in 1870,” and the “historical” part is technically true — that is the correct number of Black and white representatives in the South Carolina legislature.
But the idea that the following scene is a faithful representation of what happened is a transparent and vicious lie.
The scene is a huge, impressive spectacle, featuring a rowdy mob of Black legislators hollering and screwing around. The Black representatives at the front of the room shout and wave their arms to try to keep order, with limited success. One of the legislators is seen drinking from a flask, while others look on approvingly.
At one point, a Black representative takes his shoes off, and puts his feet up on his desk. Another Black legislator walks by, chewing on a turkey leg, and objects to the barefoot rep. The speaker rules that all members must wear shoes. The guy keeps chewing on his turkey leg. It’s pandemonium.
They pass a motion: “It is moved and carried that all whites must salute negro officers on the streets.” A title card says, “The helpless white minority,” showing a group of depressed white men sitting at the back of the room.
Our attention is directed to a small group of visitors looking down on the scene from the gallery: a white man, and his two young daughters.
Then a card says: “Passage of a bill, providing for the intermarriage of blacks and whites.”
And we see the group of Black legislators staring up at the white women, grinning suggestively. The film is extra concerned about the lustful pursuit of Black men toward white women, above all else. That is the primary hook that it uses, to scare white people into fearing Black people. It’s going to come up again.
There’s a scene of Ben walking around outside, super depressed about the ruin and degradation of white people. Then he sees two white kids putting a sheet over their heads and pretending to be a ghost, in order to frighten away a group of superstitious and ignorant Black kids.
Seeing this snatch of playful childhood race prejudice, Ben gets very excited — “the inspiration”, the title card announces — and he rushes off with a new plan.
“The result,” the title card announces: “The Ku Klux Klan, the organization that saved the South from the anarchy of black rule.”
This is the point of the film: that white people need the KKK to terrorize Black people, and keep them under control.
The first Klan incident that the film shows is pretty mild, with three men on horseback wearing robes and white hoods, scaring a guy that they describe as “a negro disturber and barn burner.” It gets worse, later on.
Naturally, Lt. Governor Lynch is furious about the emergence of this group, and he leads a band of Black soldiers to find and discourage the KKK members.
In the next major scene, we see Gus — “the renegade, a product of the vicious doctrines spread by the carpetbaggers” — who happens upon Flora Cameron, playing innocently in the woods.
Seized with lust and emboldened by the vicious doctrines, Gus tells Flora that he wants to marry her. She refuses, and he advances on her. She screams and runs, and he chases her through the woods.
Then, in a remarkable series of shots, we see Gus chase a panicked Flora, with a horrified Ben following behind — and Flora jumps off a cliff to escape Gus.
It’s an incredible scene. Between the first of the above screenshots and the last, there are 28 separate shots: two-shots, close-ups, shots of the characters silhouetted at the top of the cliff, reaction shots, all of it cross-cutting with Ben running through the woods. Ben reaches the top of the cliff, and looks down — and there’s a shot of the broken Flora, lying on the ground.
These shots are all edited together very quickly; the editing gets a lot faster during the important sequences. The whole movie has a total of 1,544 separate shots, and to give you a sense of scale, there was a popular Italian epic called Cabiria released the year before, which was two hours long and contained fewer than 100 shots.
This is new. The 1915 audience watching The Birth of a Nation has literally never seen a series of moving images edited together like this, to make a thrilling action sequence. This is the birth of movies, as we know them.
But, oh, what a terrible thing to be doing during the birth. There’s another big action sequence about hunting for Gus, with a single white guy beating up a room full of six Black guys, because he’s stronger and whiter and whatever.
Then there’s a “trial” for Gus, which means that Ben puts on his party clothes and drags the accused out onto the lawn, accompanied by about 15 other Klan members. The mob kills Gus, and then dumps his body on the Lieutenant Governor’s front porch, like heroes do.
There’s more, of course; it goes on and on. In the big climax, Lynch plans to marry Ben’s girlfriend, Elsie Stoneman. She refuses, but Lynch points out the window…
And we see, thanks to the magic invention of cross-cutting, that there’s a whole bunch of Black soldiers shooting off guns in the street.
“See! My people fill the streets,” Lynch declares, in a title card. “With them I will build a Black Empire and you as a Queen shall sit by my side.”
Lynch is threatening to marry Elsie by force, and she’s frantic to get away —
And here comes the Klan, ta-ra ta-ra, in dozens of exciting shots of little groups of two or three Klansmen gathering, and then they all ride out in full force, all these shots cross-cutting with Lynch being lustful and terrible, and Elsie losing her mind with fear —
And by now the entire audience is on their feet, shouting and cheering and hissing at the bad guys, completely caught up in a brand new transformative moment of public catharsis, which you and I recognize today as the feeling that you get when you watch a really good blockbuster movie.
“Loathing, disgust, hate envelop you, hot blood cries for vengeance,”
writes the actual movie critic for the Atlanta Journal.
“Until out of the night blazes the fiery cross that once burned high above old Scotland’s hills and the legions of the Invisible Empire roar down to rescue, and that’s when you are lifted by the hair and go crazy.”
The reviewer for Motion Picture World agrees,
“When these ‘crusaders of the South’ are seen mounted on superb horses, dashing furiously through field and forest and river to rescue innocent maidens from brutal assault or to punish ‘wicked Africans’, the audience never fails to respond, but applauds while the spectacle lasts.
“The film having roused the disgust and hatred of the white against the black to the highest pitch, suggests as a remedy of the racial question the transportation of the negroes to Liberia, which Mr. Griffith assures us was Lincoln’s idea.”
And another critic, this time for the Atlanta Constitution, says,
“The awful restraint of the audience is thrown to the winds. Many rise from their seat. With the roar of thunder a shout goes up. Freedom is here! Justice is at hand! Retribution has arrived! The scene is indescribable.”
So they really fucking liked this movie in Atlanta, I guess, and they liked it in New York and Boston and Los Angeles, too. The Birth of a Nation stirred the moviegoing public in a way that they had never experienced before. It actually lifted people out of their seats — no longer a spectator, now a participant with the on-screen mob — tracking the action as it moved from one shot to another, with massive outdoor scenes of gunfire and panic contrasted with close-ups of the young, suffering Elsie, and other nervous white people.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People lodged a protest, of course. The NAACP had just been founded in 1909, and this was precisely the kind of thing that they wanted to stop. They called the movie “an assassination of a race” that would inevitably lead to hate crimes and terrorism, which it did. The NAACP worked to get cities to ban the film, and in 1915, at least, they were not successful in any way.
Infuriatingly, the movie’s defenders claimed that it didn’t malign the entire African race, because the film also depicted good Black people, who defended their white masters and their property. Here’s the Atlanta Journal’s take:
“Race prejudice? Injustice? Suppression? You would not think of those things had you seen The Birth of a Nation. For none but a man with a spirit too picayunish and warped for words would pick such flaws in a spectacle so great and whole-hearted as this. In the first place, the picture does every credit to the negro race, lauds those faithful old black people whose fealty to their masters led them to dare the anger of mistaken fanatics, shows the true progress they have since made in industry and education. This picture is too big a thing to be bothered by such a gnat’s sting of criticism.”
So fuck that guy, obviously.
Here in 1915 reality, the movie revived the Ku Klux Klan, which had disbanded back in 1872. The brand-new 1915 Klan attracted members from around the country, especially in the places where The Birth of a Nation was screened.
A recent paper by historian Desmond Ang, “The Birth of a Nation: Media and Racial Hate“, found that there was a spike in lynchings in the counties that showed the movie, and even a hundred years later, there are more hate crimes and hate groups in those counties than in similar counties that didn’t screen the movie.
So this is where we start, blockbuster-wise. This is what blockbuster movies were for, in 1915. They didn’t sell lunchboxes and action figures; they sold anger and hate and pain and more than a century of cruelty and injustice, for two dollars a ticket.
As we move forward in this history, we’ll see how blockbuster movies managed to move away from supporting slavery, and re-channeled that energy toward hunting killer sharks. Not immediately, of course; the next time I come back to this subject, we’re going to look at Gone With the Wind. We’ll get to sharks, eventually.
Why did it take so long to get
Perry White out from behind his desk?
1.69: The Chief
— Danny Horn