Today in History: Birth of a Nation Premiers

| February 8, 2019

Birth_of_a_Nation_theatrical_posterAdapted from Thomas Dixon’s novel, The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Klu Klux Klan, D.W. Griffith’s silent movie “Birth of a Nation” premiered on February 8th, 1915 at Clune’s Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles. Its opening sequence included a “Plea for the Art of the Motion Picture”:

We do not fear censorship, for we have no wish to offend with improprieties or obscenities, but we do demand, as a right, the liberty to show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue — the same liberty that is conceded to the art of the written word — that art to which we owe the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.

Kentuckian David Wark Griffith (1875-1948) was to have produced one of the most controversial films in our nation’s history and of all time — one that was both highly racist, in negatively depicting black people and glorifying the Klu Klux Klan, and also aesthetically brilliant, by its use of the close up shot and other leading cinematic techniques. “Birth of a Nation” was boycotted by the NAACP, caused riots in theaters, and was censored in many cities, including New York City — becoming not only the center of media attention, but a major box office hit. The cast included Lillian Gish, May Marsh, Henry B. Waltham, Miriam Cooper, and other stars and was done in two parts covering the juxtaposed stories of two families, the Northern Stonemasons and Southern Camerons, during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

The following articles are drawn from Proquest Historical Newspapers, which informs and inspires classroom teaching and learning.

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