Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation - Special Edition

#44 on the 1998 AFI Best 100 Movies List

The Birth of a Nation (originally called The Clansman) is a 1915 silent drama film directed by D. W. Griffith and based on the novel and play The Clansman, both by Thomas Dixon, Jr. Griffith co-wrote the screenplay (with Frank E. Woods), and co-produced the film (with Harry Aitken). It was released on February 8, 1915. The film was originally presented in two parts, separated by an intermission.

The film chronicles the relationship of two families in Civil War and Reconstruction-era America: the pro-Union Northern Stonemans and the pro-Confederacy Southern Camerons over the course of several years. The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth is dramatized.

The film was a major commercial success, but was highly controversial owing to its portrayal of African American men (played by white actors in blackface) as unintelligent and sexually aggressive towards white women, and the portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan (whose original founding is dramatized) as a heroic force. There were widespread protests against The Birth of a Nation, and it was banned in several cities. The outcry of racism was so great that Griffith was inspired to produce Intolerance the following year.

The movie is also credited as one of the events that inspired the formation of the "second era" Ku Klux Klan at Stone Mountain, Georgia in the same year. The Birth of a Nation was used as a recruiting tool for the KKK. It was the first motion picture to be shown at the White House. President Woodrow Wilson supposedly said the film was "like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." The attribution is disputed.

* Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman
* Mae Marsh as Flora Cameron
* Henry B. Walthall as Colonel Ben Cameron
* Miriam Cooper as Margaret Cameron
* Ralph Lewis as Austin Stoneman
* George Siegmann as Silas Lynch
* Walter Long as Gus
* Robert Harron as Tod Stoneman
* Wallace Reid as Jeff the blacksmith
* Joseph Henabery as Abraham Lincoln
* Elmer Clifton as Phil Stoneman
* Josephine Crowell as Mrs. Cameron
* Spottiswoode Aitken as Dr. Cameron
* George Beranger as Wade Cameron
* Maxfield Stanley as Duke Cameron
* Jennie Lee as Mammy
* Donald Crisp as General Ulysses S. Grant
* Howard Gaye as General Robert E. Lee


* Mary Alden as Lydia Brown
* Monte Blue
* Bobby Burns as Klan Leader
* David Butler as Union soldier / Confederate soldier
* Peggy Cartwright as Young girl
* John Ford as Klansman
* Gibson Gowland
* Sam De Grasse as Senator Charles Sumner
* Olga Grey as Laura Keene
* Russell Hicks
* Elmo Lincoln as Blacksmith
* Eugene Pallette as Union soldier
* Vester Pegg
* Alma Rubens
* Charles Stevens as Volunteer
* Madame Sul-Te-Wan as Black woman
* Raoul Walsh as John Wilkes Booth
* Jules White
* Violet Wilkey as young Flora
* Tom Wilson as Stoneman's servant
* Mary Wynn
* W.B. Freeman as Union prison camp sentry

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1909, protested premieres of the film in numerous cities. It also conducted a public education campaign, publishing articles protesting the film's fabrications and inaccuracies, organizing petitions against it, and conducting education on the facts of the war and Reconstruction.

When the film was shown, riots broke out in Boston, Philadelphia and other major cities. The cities of Chicago; Denver; Kansas City, Missouri; Minneapolis; Pittsburgh; and St. Louis, Missouri refused to allow the film to open. The film's inflammatory character was a catalyst for gangs of whites to attack blacks. In Lafayette, Indiana, after seeing the film, a white man murdered a black teenager.

Thomas Dixon, Jr., author of the source play The Clansman, was a former classmate of Woodrow Wilson at Johns Hopkins University. Dixon arranged a screening at the White House, for then-President Wilson, members of his cabinet, and their families. Wilson was reported to have said about the film, "It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true". In Wilson: The New Freedom, the historian Arthur Link quotes Wilson's aide, Joseph Tumulty, who denied Wilson said this and also claims that "the President was entirely unaware of the nature of the play before it was presented and at no time has expressed his approbation of it."

Wilson's History of the American People (1902) described the Ku Klux Klan of the late 1860s as the natural outgrowth of Reconstruction, a lawless reaction to a lawless period. Wilson wrote that the Klan "began to attempt by intimidation what they were not allowed to attempt by the ballot or by any ordered course of public action."

Historians believe the quote attributed to Wilson originated with Dixon, who was relentless in publicizing the film. It has been repeated so often in print that it has taken on a separate life. Dixon went so far as to promote the film as "Federally endorsed". After controversy over the film had grown, Wilson wrote that he disapproved of the "unfortunate production." D. W. Griffith responded to the film's negative critical reception with his next film Intolerance.

Soon after World War I, in 1918, Emmett J. Scott helped produce and John W. Noble directed The Birth of a Race, hoping to capitalize on the success of Griffith's film by presenting a film set during the war. It featured a German-American family divided by the war, with sons fighting on either side, and the one loyal to the United States surviving to be part of the victory.

In 1919, the director/producer/writer Oscar Micheaux released Within Our Gates, a response from the African-American community. Notably, he reversed a key scene of Griffith's film by depicting a white man assaulting a black woman.

The film was remixed as Rebirth of a Nation, a "live" cinema experience by DJ Spooky at Lincoln Center, and has toured at many venues around the world including The Acropolis as a live cinema "remix". The remix version was also presented at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York

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