Can something be simultaneously genius and vilely racist? This is the question posed by D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film Birth of a Nation. Silent film star Mary Pickford called it the first movie that made people take the motion picture industry seriously. The film debuted in a politically charged atmosphere, full of anti-immigrant bias, racial tensions, and fear of danger from abroad.
Birth of a Nation is “probably the most perfectly produced spectacle that has yet to be seen on screen,” the Washington Times said March 1, 1915, “and one of the most comprehensive historical dramas that have been produced anywhere.”
It was based on the novel and play The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr. and part of a second Dixon novel, The Leopard’s Spots. The plot follows the lives of two families – the Stonemans from the north and the Camerons from the south – during the American Civil War and Reconstruction. African-Americans are portrayed as shiftless and immoral and as a threat to the “helpless white minority” and white womanhood while the Ku Klux Klan is the hero of civilization.
A Kentucky native, Griffith was the son of a Confederate colonel and shared Dixon’s belief that Reconstruction had been detrimental to the South.
The film was an audience favorite, and prompted Ku Klux Klan-themed products and costume balls. It also prompted price gouging. Ticket prices were $2.20 a ticket – $51.50 in today’s money – in a day and age when the average ticket cost 5 cents-15 cents, but moviegoers lined up for blocks for their chance to see the groundbreaking film.
It was the first blockbuster, making as much as $5.2 million by 1919 according to some reports, and making Dixon the first author to become rich from a film adaptation. It was the highest grossing film of all time until it was surpassed in 1937 by Snow White and Seven Dwarfs.
Lillian Gish, who played Elsie Stoneman, said, “They lost track of the money it made.”