“Wherever it goes, the Birth of the Nation film arouses widespread indignation.” Original movie poster for Birth of a Nation, 1915.
Credit: Everett Collection. From the May 6, 1915 issue of The Nation Magazine.
The Clansman" did us much injury as a book, but most of its readers were those already prejudiced against us. It did us more injury as a play, but a great deal of what it attempted to tell could not be represented on the stage. Made into a moving picture play it can do us incalculable harm."
— James Weldon Johnson, March 1915
On February 8, 1915 The Birth of a Nation made its premiere in Los Angeles at Clune's Auditorium. Although it was praised for its artistic and technical innovations, the film's treatment of the Civil War and Reconstruction and of the African Americans who had been freed from slavery proved highly controversial. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which had been founded in 1909, repeatedly petitioned authorities either to prohibit showing of the film or to excise the most offensive scenes. Although their efforts met with little success, the actions taken by the NAACP had the result of increasing the stature as well as the membership of the fledgling organization.
The Birth of a Nation was based on two novels written by Thomas Dixon, Jr.: The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden, 1865-1900 (1902), which the author described as a "sequel" to Uncle Tom's Cabin as well as a refutation of Stowe's novel, and The Clansman, An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905). Born in North Carolina near the end of the Civil War, Dixon had strong ties to the Confederacy and close relatives among the early leaders of the Ku Klux Klan.
David Wark Griffith -- director, producer, and co-author of Birth of a Nation - was born in Kentucky, a border state, but was the son of a Confederate officer whose romantic views of the South shaped his own perspective. In 1910, Griffith directed the first film made in Hollywood and established himself as a leader in the new industry. Birth of a Nation greatly enhanced his reputation. Variety, in a review of the film published on March 12, 1915, described Griffith as "the world's best film director," noting that he had done "more to make filming an art than any one person."
The artistic and technical qualities of Birth of a Nation were not, however, the issue. Rather, the NAACP challenged the historical accuracy of the film and protested against the racist depictions of African Americans. Neither of these concerns at the time Birth of a Nation was released was considered sufficient grounds for censoring a film. The National Board of Censorship, a self-regulating board established by the industry, based their decisions on whether a film encouraged immorality or criminal behavior. Consequently, the subcommittee that viewed Birth of a Nation in January 20, 1915 approved the film for a general audience.
On the following day, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in the case of Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio (236 U.S.230). The Court found that an Ohio law passed in 1913, which established a board of censors to review and approve all films intended to be shown in the state, did not violate the First Amendment's protection of freedom of expression. The justices reasoned that "the exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit" and therefore should "not be regarded … as part of the press of the country or as organs of public opinion." The unanimous opinion noted that films "may be used for evil," and for that reason, the Court concluded, "[w]e cannot regard [the censorship of movies] as beyond the power of government." [See David M. Rabban, Free Speech in Its Forgotten Years (Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 174.]
Regardless of the Supreme Court's ruling, NAACP leadership was reluctant to call for censorship of Birth of a Nation. Committed to the principle of civil rights, the organization's leaders took a generous view of the First Amendment and the protections it provides for freedom of expression. The danger posed to African Americans—most notably the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, the sharp rise in the number of lynchings, and the acts of violence associated with viewings of the film—tipped the balance and led to a nationwide campaign to censor Griffith's production. Efforts to suppress Birth of a Nation were largely unsuccessful, and the resulting publicity brought in larger audiences.
The Los Angeles branch of the NAACP led the way by calling on the local board of censorship to ban the official premiere in February 1915. When that effort failed, branch leaders met with the mayor, the chief of police, and the city council. The council passed a resolution asking the board of censors to ban the film and called for an emergency ordinance to forbid its showing. The board failed to respond, and the branch took their case to court. Asserting that the film would threaten public safety, they sought an injunction to prohibit showing of the film. The court granted the injunction, but limited its scope to a single afternoon matinee, while permitting the evening premiere and all subsequent exhibitions.
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.
Despite the fact that millions of Americans viewed Birth of a Nation in 1915, resulting in enormous profits, Griffith decided to release the film again in 1922. The NAACP renewed its campaign, petitioning the Board of Censorship in New York to revoke Griffith's permit to show the film. Not much had changed in the intervening half dozen year. On December 8, 1922, Joseph Levinson, the Commissioner for New York State, revoked the license. He based his decision on the "immorality" depicted in the film, its historical accuracy, and the racist massage. Levinson wrote:
A photoplay that at any time aids in creating a feeling of ill-will against any group, is a menace. But at this particular period, when the whole world is involved in racial controversies, when our own country, our newspapers are filled daily with stories of the evils of racial animosities, the exhibition of such a photoplay definitely calculated to arouse racial hatred is most dangerous and is likely the means of precipitating violence … and property destruction. The purpose of the motion picture regulatory law under which the Commission functions is to prevent the exhibition of pictures of this type …
The Board of Censorship overturned Levinson's ruling, providing that cuts were made in the film.
Carter, Everett. "Cultural History Written with Lightning: The Significance of the Birth of a Nation." American Quarterly 12, no. 3 (Autumn 1960): 347-57.
Oliver, Lawrence T. and Walker, Terri L., "James Weldon Johnson's 'New York Age' Essays on 'The Birth of a Nation' and the 'Southern Oligarchy.'" South Central Review 10, no. 4 (1993):1-17.
Stokes, Melvyn. D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" A History of "The Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time." Oxford University Press, 2007.
Students should begin by reading "'Art [and History] by Lightning Flash': The Birth of a Nation and Black Protest," which provides important background about the film. It is available from the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.
The following questions may be used to guide a discussion:
Students should read the following documents for homework and come to class prepared to discuss, either in groups and/or as a class, the questions that follow. You may provide copies of the questions for students to use when reading the documents.
Questions for discussion:
Once the students have reviewed the details in these three documents, guide the discussion to larger issues.
Document I: Interview with Jane Addams
Document II: Mary Childs Nerney to George Packard
Birth of a Nation opened in Boston a couple of months after its New York premiere. The NAACP spearheaded the move to ban Birth of a Nation there as well. This editorial was published on May 6, 1915. In a 1-2 page letter to the editors of The Nation, agree or disagree with their position on the question of censorship and explain the reasons for your position.
On March 20, 1915, Francis Hackett, an Irish-born writer and critic, published a review of Birth of a Nation in the newly established magazine The New Republic. Hackett had lived in Hull House, a settlement house in Chicago established by Jane Addams, when he first arrived in the United States.
James Weldon Johnson, a field director for the NAACP, had joined the staff of the New York Age in 1914 as contributing editor. He used his column, "Views and Reviews," to analyze the film from a variety of angles and to raise critical questions*. Lawrence J. Oliver and Terri L. Walker, in an article examining Johnson's essays, summarize the questions he posed
Johnson's essays articulated the thinking of many African Americans and the difficulties of determining how best to deal with Griffith's so-called masterpiece.
Give your students these questions to think about over night in preparation for a class discussion that focuses on Birth of a Nation and contemporary, related issues involving race, religion, and ethnicity.
*[Lawrence J. Oliver and Terri L. Walker, "James Weldon Johnson's 'New York Age' Essays on 'The Birth of a Nation' and the 'Southern Oligarchy,'" South Central Review 10, no. 4 (1993):3.
2 class periods