We have a new exhibition to mark the centenary of D.W Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. This was the first extended narrative film produced, a ground breaking work which exhibits innovative artistry – it was the first film to have an original score, use hundreds of extras, and employ night-time photography. Griffith’s editing techniques were greatly lauded - he used close-ups and long-shots in very creative ways, to emphasise the emotion on a character’s face or give a sense of scale. All of this turned the film into a record-breaking success at the box office. Audiences were willing to pay unprecedented prices for tickets, which was necessary because the film’s cost was nearly triple its original budget. However, The Birth of a Nation is also very controversial, and its legacy is as a hugely racist film. This is for a multitude of reasons, including the appalling representation of Black men as primitive and savage, and the sympathetic depiction of the Ku Klux Klan.
The new display features two programmes from the film’s theatrical releases in the US and Britain respectively (EXE BD 18284) (EXE BD 18281). These contain publicity material such as interviews and reviews. One of the programmes reveals the giant scale of production, with a page titled “Facts about The Birth of a Nation” disclosing that 18,000 people and 3,000 horses were used, $10,000 a day was paid for the use of an entire county, and nearly 200,000 feet of film was shot. The fact that a page of publicity space is devoted to listing the various extraordinary costs incurred demonstrates that the vastness of the film and the huge budget this required were used to promote it as a spectacle.
The enormous success of the film created a very prominent platform for its racist content; it played a part in the reestablishment of the Ku Klux Klan, and was used to recruit new members. There were vehement protests at its release, and cinemas were picketed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). A copy of a poster issued by the Progressive Party can be seen in the display. Ironically taken from Roy E Aitken’s book sympathetic to the film The Birth of a Nation Story (EXE BD 42347), it objects that the film “encourages race hatred”.
Notably, Du Bois recalled that following the release of the film “the number of mob murders so increased that nearly one hundred Negroes were lynched during 1915 and a score of whites, a larger number than had occurred for more than a decade” (cited in Breech Birth: The Reception to D.W.Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” by David Rylance).
Also included in the exhibition is a copy of The Clansman (EXE BD 36110), the novel by Thomas Dixon upon which D.W. Griffith’s film is based, as well as several books containing criticism of the film. Among these are Melvyn Stokes’ A History of “The Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time” (EXE BD 55767), and Donald Bogle’s Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films (EXE BD 15821). In addition, the collection holds a publicity postcard from The Girl from Chicago (EXE BD 34707), directed by Oscar Micheaux, an African-American filmmaker who was directing films at the same time as D.W.Griffith and was amongst those who criticised The Birth of a Nation for its racism.
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