On February 18, 1915, the silent film Birth of a Nation (originally titled The Clansman) by director/producer D.W. Griffith premiered at Clune"s Auditorium in Los Angeles, California. The 12-reel, three-hour-long film was a first in American film history for its length, cost, music, and popularity. What it is best remembered for, however, is its racism. Bigoted but presenting itself as a historically accurate representation of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, the film riled up racism and was a direct cause of the revival of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
What Was Birth of a Nation About?
Birth of a Nation was based on a novel and play written by Thomas Dixon Jr. (1864-1946). Having grown up in North Carolina during the Reconstruction era, Dixon was appalled after watching a stage play of Harriet Beecher Stowe"s famous in 1901. He vowed to write what he believed to be a more accurate history of the South during Reconstruction.
Using his own experiences as well as memories of his father and uncle"s involvement in the Ku Klux Klan, Dixon wrote The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Klu Klux Klan, which was first published in 1905. D.W. Griffith, the producer and director of Birth of a Nation, took pieces from both Dixon"s novel and play to create his epic film.
The novel, and thus the film, revolved around the interwoven lives of two,` white families: the Northern Stonemans and the Southern Camerons. The film was broken up into two halves, separated by a short intermission.
The first half covered the period of the Civil War and the second half covered Reconstruction.
The main purpose of the story was to depict the harshness of the North"s policy of rapid Reconstruction after the Civil War by emphasizing the threat of freed and empowered blacks upon Southern whites. The film portrayed members of the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) as "knights in shining white armor" who rescued the maidenhood of Southern white women.
According to one of the film"s title cards, the KKK "saved the South from the anarchy of black rule."