Birth of a Nation


To say that D.W. Griffith’s film, Birth of a Nation (1915) changed the face of American cinema would not be an understatement. Not only did Griffith introduce many of the storytelling conventions that would soon become synonymous with the classic Hollywood style, but the film also popularized many of the prejudicial tropes that would shape representations of African Americans in popular culture  – and negatively impact the experiences and opportunities of real African Americans – for decades to come. Griffin did not invent these stereotypes, but the film’s popularity certainly contributed to images of brutish, criminal, incompetent, and sexually depraved black men becoming cinematic shorthand for comedy and villainy (as well as depictions of “good” black people content in the subservience).

The film is an adaptation of Thomas F. Dixon Jr.’s The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905), which tells the “heroic” story of the KKK’s creation in defense of Southern White virtue in the face of uncontrollable and dangerous free Blacks threatening rape and ruin during the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877). Dixon’s book was intended to send a strong segregationist message  that cast aspersion, ridicule, and suspicion on African American claims to equality, governance, and leadership.

Film historian Richard Schickel has suggested that Griffith’s film adaptation “certainly generated more than $60 million in box-office business in its first run.”[1] According to Thomas Doherty, Birth of a Nation played at the Liberty Theater in New York City for 44 weeks and tickets were priced at $2.20 ($51.50 in 2015 dollars). [2]

Yet, while it is popular to quote President Woodrow Wilson’s proclamation upon seeing the film when screened at the White House that Birth of a Nation was “like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true” [3] as proof of the film’s impact on and reflection of the cultural zeitgeist of the era, it is also important to recognize that the film met with resistance across the United States by citizens of all races decrying its discriminatory caricaturization of Black lives during reconstruction. The NAACP petitioned film boards to ban the the film. A dozen cities banned or censored the film for fear that it might spark racial violence. While Norfolk, VA was not ultimately one of those cities, the Tidewater area was quite proactive in mounting a response…

For more information on Birth of a Nation as well as African American efforts to challenge the film, see:


[1] Schickel, Richard (1984). D.W. Griffith: An American Life. Simon and Schuster. p. 281. ISBN 0671225960.
[2] Thomas Doherty (February 8, 2015). “‘The Birth of a Nation’ at 100: “Important, Innovative and Despicable” (Guest Column)”. The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved February 8, 2015
[3] There is no evidence that President Wilson actually made this proclamation. It is now believed that Thomas Dixon made up the quote as part of his relentless promotion of the film (Birth of a Nation  was screened at the White House though), but the quote has become so infamous that it continues to be one of the defining stories about the film’s release