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By one way of reckoning, the week of February 8, 2015, can be called the 100th birthday of the medium with which many of us have spent our lives enthralled: the feature film. But the nation didn’t see any parades, fireworks, grand speeches, or other shows of celebration. That’s because the film that premiered at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles on February 8, 1915, was D. W. Griffith’s The Clansman, soon to be retitled The Birth of a Nation—the most virulently racist major movie ever released in the United States.
Of course, the definitions of such landmark dates can be debated. (Thanks to a vigorous campaign by the French, many people think motion pictures were first publicly projected in Paris by the Lumière brothers in December of 1895, when in fact this was accomplished in New York by a former Confederate artillery officer named Woodville Latham seven months earlier.)1 But the three-hour Birth of a Nation had a profound dual impact: aesthetically, it synthesized the various cinematic storytelling devices that had been created until that time into a grand whole that many saw as announcing the arrival of a full-fledged art form; commercially, it performed so spectacularly in road-show engagements across the country as to effectively propel the industry from the era of storefront nickelodeons mainly serving working-class crowds toward that of stand-alone movie palaces aimed at middle-class viewers. In a real sense, Hollywood itself was constructed on the foundations laid down by Birth, which is sometimes still reckoned the most commercially successful movie ever released.
It’s also frequently awarded a superlative that appears on the cover of an excellent recent study, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, by historian Melvyn Stokes: “the most controversial motion picture of all time.” To be sure, The Birth of a Nation was controversial on its first release, and it has remained so ever since. What’s stunning now, though, is how completely uncontroversial it was to almost all white Americans in 1915. In a tale that sentimentally embraces both Confederate and Union forces in its account of the Civil War, then blames the South’s Reconstruction woes on a combination of vicious northern politicians, scheming “mulattos” and scalawags, and African Americans fumbling with the levers of democracy, the film celebrates the Ku Klux Klan as heroes who saved the white South from ruination. This all reads as howlingly ahistorical now, but then it perfectly articulated a widely embraced doctrine that has a name: white supremacy.
It’s tempting to say that this is what (white) audiences were cheering wildly from coast to coast in 1915, with very few dissenters on their side of the color line. But in reality, they were also swept away by the audiovisual onslaught that Griffith constructed. Though Birth’s publicists erroneously credited him with inventing many of the movie’s stylistic techniques (iris shots, close-ups, parallel action, etc.), there’s no questioning that Griffith, who’d made some 450 mainly short movies since he began directing in 1908, not only understood better than any other filmmaker [End Page 29] of the day how to orchestrate these techniques to serve a unified, compelling end, but also was the first to demonstrate their potential for creating long-form films that could keep viewers in frenzied fascination for hours.
It’s almost impossible for us to imagine what it was like for viewers to encounter Birth in 1915. Many would have never seen any movie before; only a few would have seen one longer than twenty minutes...