A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1915 – The Birth of a Nation

Because how do you not pick Birth of a Nation for 1915?

Honestly I could have just ended my article there, because I don’t even need to explain this choice, but I told myself I’m gonna try to write 500 words about each film, so I’ll figure out something to talk about.

It’s based on a book called The Clansman, which already tells you you’re starting off on the wrong foot. It’s kind of weird that D.W. Griffith chose this as his first major feature. I get why he chose it in scope, but starting from the point of view of the KKK… kind of fucked up.

Apparently the title was The Clansman when it came out, but at some unidentified point in time afterward, it was retitled The Birth of a Nation, speaking to the fact that Griffith believes that after the Civil War, we became a unified nation. Which is hilarious, because the end of this movie has a group who hates blacks and would continue to do everything in their power to keep racism alive in the south for a hundred-plus years after the end of that war.

This film actually caused riots when it came out. So don’t think it was just accepted at the time. I mean, of course, people went to go see it, because controversy creates cash, but this was considered as racist as it is then as it is now. It’s not one of those, “Oh, look at how funny those negroes are.” No, people thought this was fucked up a hundred years ago too. But they went to see it. If you look at what the highest grossing movies of all time were, it was: Birth of a Nation, then The Big Parade, then Snow White, then Gone With the Wind, then The Sound of Music, then The Godfather, then Jaws, then Star Wars, then E.T., then Jurassic Park, then Titanic, then Avatar. So this was the highest grossing movie ever for a decade. No one knows exactly how much it made, but everyone agrees that, for the time, it was a shit ton.

The film also cost $112,000 to make. Even if you adjust for inflation, that still seems ridiculously low. But trust me, it was a lot at the time. A ticket for the movie cost $2, which is the equivalent now of paying about $50 to go see it. So, in 1915, it was essentially The Birth of a Nation presented by Live Nation (which… that was said here first).

All the black characters are negatively portrayed (dumb as shit and want to rape all the white women. Which is funny, because I know I have black friends who would go, “Well…”), and they’re played by white people in blackface. So yeah.. kind of racist. It takes a pro-KKK, pro-Confederacy, anti-Union standpoint, and that’s kind of weird. Because, on the one hand, you can go, “Well, it’s the source material, and he’s just telling a story.” But on the other hand, D.W. Griffith chose to tell this story. He could have chosen War and Peace.

But, you know, it uses panoramas and irises, and they shot at night, and used pans, and staged action very meticulously – it’s a hugely influential movie. Plus he tinted and toned to great effect, and the film looks incredible a hundred years later (next year is the 100th anniversary of the film, by the way). It’s a masterpiece of filmmaking, even though the narrative is pretty questionable.

This is a movie that’s so by-default famous that when AFI created their original list of the 100 top American films ever made (which is a bullshit list and we all know it), this just made it on because it is what it is. And then they updated the list ten years later and this film was nowhere to be found. (But again, horse shit. I’m just pointing out the fact that it automatically made the list purely on reputation alone.)

Probably the best thing about this movie is that the controversy against it was so great that it led to D.W. Griffith making Intolerance the year after this. So basically controversy created a masterpiece. A masterpiece begat a masterpiece.

Oh, and also, in a weird way, this movie is also partly responsible for the creation of MGM. So in a way, without this movie, we wouldn’t have Bio-Dome.


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