The July 9 Retropolis column “How ‘The Birth of a Nation’ revived the KKK in 1915” [Metro] was right on target. Not mentioned in the article was that “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) was one of the first feature-length films ever made; it had a large budget and large cast. It helped start the “star” system (e.g., Lillian Gish). The director, D.W. Griffith, caught enough grief for the movie that he made “Intolerance” to supposedly compensate for “The Birth of a Nation.” But the cat was out of the bag, and “The Birth of a Nation” injected more life into the Ku Klux Klan, which was moribund, than it had ever had.
President Woodrow Wilson, considered by history to be a great progressive but who began segregation of federal offices at the request of Southern politicians, watched the movie in the White House with members of his Cabinet. After that viewing, Wilson supposedly said, “It’s like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all terribly true.” Until “Gone With the Wind” — another fantasy — “The Birth of a Nation” was the top Hollywood moneymaker. The film is based on the novel and play “The Clansman” (1905) by Southern Baptist minister Thomas Dixon Jr., who is reported to have wept with rage on seeing a stage version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the most famous of all anti-slavery works.
Dixon considered “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to be a complete lie. “The Clansman” was his answer to it, and the impact of “The Clansman” remains to this day.
Peter I. Hartsock, Laytonsville