So after hearing about D.W. Griffith and Birth of a Nation, I kind of wanted to see just how big of a movie this actually was. I know that it made a ridiculous amount of money, but that could be attributed to a couple of things, mainly it being the first film of its length and its propaganda content. It seems like it was directly built to appeal to the South, which makes sense, as D.W. Griffith’s father fought for the Confederacy, but it wasn’t just appealing to the South.
When the film first premiered, it wasn’t in Kentucky or Alabama or any Southern town. It premiered in Los Angeles. Afterwards, people were on their feet, cheering about the movie. I would like to think that this is just because it was the first feature-length film and critics just enjoyed seeing something of its magnitude pulled off. Apparently, one critic stated that, “The worst thing about The Birth of a Nation is how good it is.”
But, unfortunately, a lot of the film’s success did come from the fact that it was a very racist piece of propaganda. Woodrow Wilson, a president who, for all the good he did for this country, was shockingly racist, called the film “history written in lightning.” It was the first movie ever screened at the White House, and after viewing it, Wilson apparently was amazed at how true and accurate the film was.
Now, the film is a divisive piece of art. The message behind it, although horrible, is portrayed in a very innovative and impressive way. It really is the foundation for a lot of modern film. I suppose that the people who don’t show it have their point, but I think it should be seen as a mile marker for how far we’ve come as a people. This sort of film could probably never even be made today, let alone be successful. I’m thankful for that.
Most information here comes from this NPR article on the 100th anniversary of the film.