A century ago, on March 3, 1915, the most reprehensibly racist film in Hollywood history opened in New York. “The Birth of a Nation” had premiered in Los Angeles on Feb. 8, and on Feb. 18 it became the first feature film to be screened at the White House. But the premiere at New York’s Liberty Theater was much more of a scene, as a massive publicity effort orchestrated by director D.W. Griffith converged with a massive protest led by the NAACP.
The approximately three-hour-long drama follows two white families – one Northern, one Southern — through the antebellum period, the Civil War and Reconstruction. Griffith, the son of a Kentucky colonel in the Confederate cavalry, perpetuated the demeaning caricatures of blacks typical of minstrel shows and “coon” songs. White actors wearing blackface play buffoons.
But Griffith amped up the racism. As Leon Litwack wrote in “Past Imperfect, History According to the Movies,” the film depicts African American men as “subhuman,” possessing “vicious bestiality” and “primitive sexuality.” Walter Long (another white actor playing a black man) portrays the former plantation hand Gus, who lusts after the virginal Flora Cameron (Mae Marsh), causing her to leap to her death to avoid being raped. The Klan rides to the rescue of Southern whites in general and, in particular, silent screen superstar Lillian Gish’s character, another blonde beauty who is menaced by the “mulatto” Lt. Gov. Silas Lynch (played by George Sigmann).
The film also notably hypes the threat of black power. Beyond the lieutenant governor, African Americans are depicted as state legislators, judges, juries, voters and — most dramatically — armed soldiers enforcing equality. Black South Carolina lawmakers appear shoeless, drinking whiskey and eating chicken in the state legislature when they pass a law allowing blacks and whites to intermarry. During his Oscar acceptance speech for Selma’s song “Glory,” John Legend warned last month “that the voting rights act that [Civil Rights activists] fought for 50 years ago is being compromised,” but in “The Birth of a Nation” it is blacks who are shown disenfranchising white would-be voters. Uppity free slaves push white southerners off sidewalks.
“The Birth of a Nation” was hardly the last racist accomplishment to come out of Hollywood. But it far surpasses in viciousness the cartoonish servile servant roles epitomized by Stepin Fetchit in movies such as John Ford’s 1934 “Judge Priest.” And while there are allusions to the Klan in 1939’s “Gone with the Wind,” those are mild compared to the graphic and laudatory portrayal in Griffith’s film.
Rather, “The Birth of a Nation” takes its place alongside the Nazis’ “Triumph of the Will” and “Jew Suss” as among the most despicable propaganda pictures of all time. Its racist imagery has reverberated for a century. Griffith’s agitprop epic is believed to have been a Ku Klux Klan recruiting tool. And his stereotype of black men as brutal savages may be in the unconscious or conscious minds of those police officers and vigilantes who use excessive force against blacks now, in Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island, N.Y., Sanford, Fla. and beyond.
It took Hollywood 97 years to rehabilitate Griffith’s misrepresentation of the great radical Republican abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, who served as the model for the villainous character Austin Stoneman (played by Ralph Lewis). Tommy Lee Jones was Oscar-nominated for his portrayal of the courageous congressman who fought for the emancipation and enfranchisement of African Americans and cohabitated with a Black woman in 2012’s “Lincoln.”
Now it’s time for Tinseltown to more thoroughly reconstruct Griffith’s profoundly flawed, dishonest view of Reconstruction. Certainly, a screen saga about brave, noble Freedom Riders could be as dramatic and visually compelling as “The Birth of a Nation’s” night riders.