In the 1870s, the South saw the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the Lost Cause cult that defined the way America remembered the causes and ramifications of the Civil War. As land was divided up and given to former slaves, many whites saw their former lives vanish before their eyes. Nostalgia for the bygone era of plantation life rooted itself in Southern culture. The disillusioned and delusional white elite wanted “redemption,” which included taking back their land from the Federal military power that had occupied their states since the end of the war and gaining influence through violence on African-Americans and poorer white voters. At the same time the defeated southerners started to rewrite history itself. The Lost Cause depoliticized the war, romanticized the past, and erased slavery as the primary reason for going to war. Lost Cause ideologues preached that the war was fought for state rights, and that the Confederacy was a simple agrarian country fighting against the powerful industrial North.
Organizations started to sprout up around the south that dedicated themselves to rewriting history in favor of white supremacy. Former confederate officer, Jubal Early, gave a speech to one such organization, the Southern Historical Society. In his peroration he exclaimed, “…It will be demonstrated that in no war which the world has witnessed were the instances of unselfish patriotism and heroic devotion so marked and so numerous in ours. In our war they were not confined to classes, or to age or sex, but were exhibited by the people as well as the soldiers, the woman as well as the men…” White northerners welcomed the romanticized imagery of the Civil War, and thus the war became an epic tale of white American brothers fighting on both sides. It also succeeded in erasing African-Americans from the historical landscape. It was this culture that indoctrinated young David Llewelyn Wark Griffith during his youth.
Hollywood was still in its formative years by 1915 when Birth of a Nation was released to the country. D.W. Griffith, like many other directors at the time, was making one-reel Civil War films. He directed films such as In the Border States (1910), The Fugitive (1910), and The Battle (1911), directing 19 one-reel Civil War films in all. Then Griffith turned his eyes toward Thomas Dixon’s stage play, The Clansman, as the basis for his next Civil War film. The final result was incommensurable to other films of its day. Birth of a Nation was a technical and storytelling achievement in the history of film. For the first time in history, Griffith combined intimacy against the backdrop of war in a feature length film (a film lasting over an hour). It is to Griffith’s credit as a filmmaker, that even in modern times, audiences can summon up a miniscule amount of sympathy for the white slaveholding family, who make up the principal characters of the film.
If one looks, and one does not have to look too far, beyond the ambitious battle scenes and patriotic fervor, you find a film of America shot thorough a rose-tinted lens, directed by historical ignorance and used as propaganda by a race that believed they were the autochthonous rulers of a country. The main hero of Griffith’s film is Colonel Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall), nicknamed the “little colonel.” The film does not hide the fact that the historical persona that serves as the basis for the “little colonel” is Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest was the instigator of the Fort Pillow Massacre, where three hundred African-American soldiers were executed after a battle. After the war, he acted as one of the forefathers of the original Ku Klux Klan. Colonel Ben Cameron was a hero to audiences that sympathized with the mission of the Klan, or audiences that were oblivious to Griffith’s message to the filmgoing world. In 1915, obliviousness to race relations was not a luxury that many enjoyed. Jim Crow laws dictated where African-Americans could eat, sit, and live. Lynching was still a large part of the violent culture in the South. Often it was seen as a community event and the subject of many underground photographic postcards sent to relatives and friends.
Birth of a Nation portrayed the plight of the African-American as the sole reason for the ruin of American values and the Southern way of life. In the pre-war scenes, slaves are shown to be happy and content with the lives that they have. They are delighted to see their white masters and do not hesitate to perform for them. The actors (some in black face) shuck and jive for Colonel Ben Cameron and his friends. When the slaves are given freedom and rights, they turn into a mob of looters, rapists, and murders. The only African-Americans that are looked upon favorably by the film are the loyal slaves that stay by the Cameron family during the war and Reconstruction years. The Reconstruction congress as pictured in the film is filled with unruly elected black officials that stare lustfully at white women as a vote is passed for interracial marriage. In the climax of the film, the KKK, led by the “little colonel,” ride triumphantly toward the trapped Cameron family in a cabin being surrounded by a group of black soldiers. Upon the release of Birth of a Nation, the NAACP protested the exhibition of the film in fear that the film could spark violence as a result of Griffith’s work.
The unprecedented success of Birth of a Nation helped the Lost Cause movement and influenced how America remembered Reconstruction. It led to the revival of the KKK in the 1920s, who then donned the white uniform as an homage to the film. It gave credence to racial stereotypes of African-Americans and encouraged violence against minorities. The film paved the way for Hollywood studios’ comfort in adapting novels like Margaret Mitchell’s novel in 1939, filled with Lost Cause ideology. In the 1930 prologue to the re-release of Birth of a Nation, Griffith was asked to comment on his feeling towards the Klan, African-Americans and the war. The famed director still believed that the KKK was needed in those years after the war; he labeled Pickets Charge during the battle of Gettysburg “beautiful,” and called African-Americans “niggers.” Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is not solely responsible for the despairing reality of race relations in America, but like gum stuck in the rug, films like Griffith’s 1915 silent epic make it harder and harder to scrub away the racial evils and prejudices from the fabric of American culture that last even today.