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Birth of a Nation, 1915

 

A controversial, explicitly racist, but landmark American film masterpiece – these all describe ground-breaking producer/director D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915).

The domestic melodrama/epic originally premiered with the title The Clansman in February, 1915 in Los Angeles, California, but three months later was retitled with the present title at its world premiere in New York, to emphasize the birthing process of the US. The film was based on former North Carolina Baptist minister Rev. Thomas Dixon Jr.’s anti-black, 1905 bigoted melodramatic staged play, The Clansman, the second volume in a trilogy:

Its release set up a major censorship battle over its vicious, extremist depiction of African Americans, although Griffith naively claimed that he wasn’t racist at the time. Unbelievably, the film is still used today as a recruitment piece for Klan membership – and in fact, the organization experienced a revival and membership peak in the decade immediately following its initial release. And the film stirred new controversy when it was voted into the National Film Registry in 1993, and when it was voted one of the “Top 100 American Films” (at # 44) by the American Film Institute in 1998.

Film scholars agree, however, that it is the single most important and key film of all time in American movie history – it contains many new cinematic innovations and refinements, technical effects and artistic advancements, including a color sequence at the end. It had a formative influence on future films and has had a recognized impact on film history and the development of film as art. In addition, at almost three hours in length, it was the longest film to date. However, it still provokes conflicting views about its message.