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Jessica Cruz
Jessica Cruz

The Birth Of A Nation

Popular among white audiences nationwide, the film's success was both a consequence of and a contributor to racial segregation throughout the U.S.[16] In response to the film's depictions of black people and Civil War history, African Americans across the U.S. organized and protested. In Boston and other localities, black leaders and the NAACP spearheaded an unsuccessful campaign to have it banned on the basis that it inflamed racial tensions and could incite violence.[17] Griffith's indignation at efforts to censor or ban the film motivated him to produce Intolerance the following year.[18]

The Birth of a Nation

The film consists of two parts of similar length. The first part closes with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, after which there is an intermission. At the New York premiere, Dixon spoke on stage between the parts, reminding the audience that the dramatic version of The Clansman appeared in that venue nine years previously. "Mr. Dixon also observed that he would have allowed none but the son of a Confederate soldier to direct the film version of The Clansman."[21]

Lynch then orders a crackdown on the Klan after discovering Gus's murder. He also secures the passing of legislation allowing mixed-race marriages. Dr. Cameron is arrested for possessing Ben's Klan regalia, now considered a capital crime. He is rescued by Phil Stoneman and a few of his black servants. Together with Margaret Cameron, they flee. When their wagon breaks down, they make their way through the woods to a small hut that is home to two sympathetic former Union soldiers who agree to hide them. An intertitle states, "The former enemies of North and South are united again in common defense of their Aryan birthright."[28]

When the film was released, riots also broke out in Philadelphia and other major cities in the United States. The film's inflammatory nature was a catalyst for gangs of whites to attack blacks. On April 24, 1916, the Chicago American reported that a white man murdered a black teenager in Lafayette, Indiana, after seeing the film, although there has been some controversy as to whether the murderer had actually seen The Birth of a Nation.[95] Over a century later, a Harvard University research paper found that "[o]n average, lynchings in a county rose fivefold in the month after [the film] arrived."[96] The mayor of Cedar Rapids, Iowa was the first of twelve mayors to ban the film in 1915 out of concern that it would promote race prejudice, after meeting with a delegation of black citizens.[97] The NAACP set up a precedent-setting national boycott of the film, likely seen as the most successful effort. Additionally, they organized a mass demonstration when the film was screened in Boston, and it was banned in three states and several cities.[98]

The Birth of a Nation was very popular, despite the film's controversy; it was unlike anything that American audiences had ever seen before.[102] The Los Angeles Times called it "the greatest picture ever made and the greatest drama ever filmed".[103] Mary Pickford said: "Birth of a Nation was the first picture that really made people take the motion picture industry seriously".[104] Glorifying the Klan to approving white audiences,[105] it became a national cultural phenomenon: merchandisers made Ku Klux hats and kitchen aprons, and ushers dressed in white Klan robes for openings. In New York there were Klan-themed balls and, in Chicago that Halloween, thousands of college students dressed in robes for a massive Klan-themed party.[106] The producers had 15 "detectives" at the Liberty Theater in New York City "to prevent disorder on the part of those who resent the 'reconstruction period' episodes depicted."[107]

In 1918, an American silent drama film directed by John W. Noble called The Birth of a Race was released as a direct response to The Birth of a Nation.[113] The film was an ambitious project by producer Emmett Jay Scott to challenge Griffith's film and tell another side of the story, but was ultimately unsuccessful.[114] In 1920, African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux released Within Our Gates, a response to The Birth of a Nation. Within Our Gates depicts the hardships faced by African Americans during the era of Jim Crow laws.[115] Griffith's film was remixed in 2004 as Rebirth of a Nation by DJ Spooky.[116] Quentin Tarantino has said that he made his film Django Unchained (2012) to counter the falsehoods of The Birth of a Nation.[117]

The film portrayed President Abraham Lincoln as a friend of the South and refers to him as "the Great Heart".[129] The two romances depicted in the film, Phil Stoneman with Margaret Cameron and Ben Cameron with Elsie Stoneman, reflect Griffith's retelling of history. The couples are used as a metaphor, representing the film's broader message of the need for the reconciliation of the North and South to defend white supremacy.[130] Among both couples, there is an attraction that forms before the war, stemming from the friendship between their families. With the war, however, both families are split apart, and their losses culminate in the end of the war with the defense of white supremacy. One of the intertitles clearly sums up the message of unity: "The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright."[131]

The civil rights movement and other social movements created a new generation of historians, such as scholar Eric Foner, who led a reassessment of Reconstruction. Building on W. E. B. DuBois' work, but also adding new sources, they focused on achievements of the African American and white Republican coalitions, such as establishment of universal public education and charitable institutions in the South and extension of suffrage to black men. In response, the Southern-dominated Democratic Party and its affiliated white militias had used extensive terrorism, intimidation and even assassinations to suppress African-American leaders and voting in the 1870s and to regain power.[137]

Griffith's understanding of the past was based on a twisted account, and today it's easy to imagine that a movie like his would flop and be forgotten. But The Birth of a Nation, far from falling into oblivion, led to the birth of Hollywood.

He achieved what no other known man has achieved. To watchhis work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscioususe of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination and first eloquenceof language; the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work ofone man.

Ihave just looked at the battle charge again, having recently endured the pallidpieties of the pedestrian Civil War epic "Gods and Generals," and Iagree with Agee. Griffith demonstrated to every filmmaker and moviegoer whofollowed him what a movie was, and what a movie could be. That this achievementwas made in a film marred by racism should not be surprising. As a nation onceable to reconcile democracy with slavery, America has a stain on its soul; tounderstand our history we must begin with the contradiction that the FoundingFathers believed all men (except black men) were created equal.

Certainly"Birth of a Nation" is a film of great visual beauty and narrativepower. It tells the story of the Civil War through the experiences of familiesfrom both North and South, shows the flowing of their friendship, shows themmade enemies as the nation was divided, and in a battlefield scene has the sonsof both families dying almost simultaneously. It is unparalleled in its recreationsof actual battles on realistic locations; the action in some scenes reaches formiles. For audiences at the time there would have been great interest inGriffith's attempts to reproduce historic incidents, such as the assassinationof Lincoln, with exacting accuracy. His recreation of Sherman's march throughGeorgia is so bloody and merciless that it awakened Southern passions all overagain.

Poster for the American film The Birth of a Nation (1915) for a showing at the Academy of Music by Epoch Producing Co. The Birth of a Nation, perhaps one of the most controversial movies in U.S. history was met with both rousing approval and indignant condemnation. Attempts to block the film were common, but resistance to such efforts during the early part of the twentieth century were not brought under the First Amendment. (public domain).

Clyde E. Willis. 2009. The Birth of a Nation [electronic resource]. The First Amendment Encyclopedia, Middle Tennessee State University (accessed Mar 31, 2023). -amendment/article/792/the-birth-of-a-nation

The failure of the L.A. branch to achieve its objectives demonstrated the need for national leadership. However, variations on the Los Angeles experience would become the norm as the national and/or branch offices appealed to local and state governments for support. Public officials were either reluctant to act for political reasons or lacked authority to intervene. The principal exception was Kansas, where the governor of the state was also the president of the Topeka branch of the NAACP and a member of the state board of censors.

The movie baffles, enthralls, angers and mystifies. It was the fusing of a thrilling new art form with primitive instincts. Its revolutionary cinematography, editing, narrative range, battle scenes and sprawling cast mesmerized audiences and inspired generations of filmmakers. It was also searing propaganda that revitalized the Klan and roused prejudices that echo today in police shootings of black men, outrage over affirmative action and furor over whether we must rise for the national anthem.

In 2010 Bangladesh established a tribunal to try those accused of war crimes. It is called the International Crimes Tribunal, though it is not an international court in the sense of being founded on international law. Rather it is a national court, based on a Bangladeshi statute passed in 1973 and amended in 2009 and 2012. It was very late to begin the search for justice, for the accused as well as for victims. But war crimes are subject to no statute of limitation. 041b061a72


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