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Film history

March 12, 2010

This shows that you can be a talented director, while still being an asshole.

Birth of a Nation (from wikipedia)

Part 2 depicts Reconstruction. Stoneman and his mulatto protegé, Silas Lynch, go to South Carolina to observe their agenda of empowering Southern blacks via election fraud. Meanwhile, Ben, inspired by observing white children pretending to be ghosts to scare off black children, devises a plan to reverse perceived powerlessness of Southern whites by forming the Ku Klux Klan, although his membership in the group angers Elsie.

Then Gus, a murderous former slave with designs on white women, crudely proposes to marry Flora. She flees into the forest, pursued by Gus. Trapped on a precipice, Flora leaps to her death to avoid letting herself be raped. In response, the Klan hunts Gus, lynches him, and leaves his corpse on Lieutenant Governor Silas Lynch’s doorstep. In retaliation, Lynch orders a crackdown on the Klan. The Camerons flee from the black militia and hide out in a small hut, home to two former Union soldiers, who agree to assist their former Southern foes in defending their “Aryan birthright,” according to the caption.

A ticket to the film cost a record $2 (the equivalent of $42 today). It remained the most profitable film of all time until it was dethroned by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937.

At it’s premiere, the film was entitled ‘The Clansman’ but the title was later changed to ‘The Birth of a Nation’ to reflect Griffith’s belief that after the United States emerged out of the American Civil War and Reconstruction, ostensibly ended by the Klan, as a unified nation.

On the evening of March 21, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson attended a special screening at the White House of THE BIRTH OF A NATION, a film directed by D.W. Griffith and based on THE CLANSMAN, a novel written by Wilson’s good friend Thomas Dixon. The film presented a distorted portrait of the South after the Civil War, glorifying the Ku Klux Klan and denigrating blacks. It falsified the period of Reconstruction by presenting blacks as dominating Southern whites (almost all of whom are noble in the film) and sexually forcing themselves upon white women. The Klan was portrayed as the South’s savior from this alleged tyranny. Not only was this portrayal untrue, it was the opposite of what actually happened. During Reconstruction, whites dominated blacks and assaulted black women. The Klan was primarily a white terrorist organization that carried out hundreds of murders.

After seeing the film, an enthusiastic Wilson reportedly remarked: “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” African-American audiences openly wept at the film’s malicious portrayal of blacks, while Northern white audiences cheered. The film swept the nation. Riots broke out in major cities (Boston and Philadelphia, among others), and it was denied release in many other places (Chicago, Ohio, Denver, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Minneapolis). Gangs of whites roamed city streets attacking blacks. In Lafayette, Indiana, a white man killed a black teenager after seeing the movie. Thomas Dixon reveled in its triumph. “The real purpose of my film,” he confessed gleefully, “was to revolutionize Northern audiences that would transform every man into a Southern partisan for life.”

In 1953, the Directors Guild of America instituted the D.W. Griffith Award, its highest honor. Its recipients included Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, John Huston, Woody Allen, Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock, and Griffith’s friend Cecil B. DeMille.

The website Rotten Tomatoes, which compiles reviews from various sources, indicates the film has a 100% “fresh” (positive) rating.

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