When D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent epic “The Birth of a Nation” returned to theaters a few years after its initial run, the director placed a strange new title card in the opening. It was a message pleading the public to support the art of film, and an apology for offending anyone sensitive to history’s improprieties. The remaining sentence stood up for film depicting the wrongs in America’s timeline to illuminate “the bright side of virtue.”
One-hundred-and-one years later, those words give you a good starting point in attempting to place the original “The Birth of a Nation” in its proper context about race relations. It comes at a critical time in our history alongside the positive Sundance buzz of a new film with the same title.
The latter film is Nate Parker’s new epic depicting the 1831 slave revolt of Nat Turner. With raves already abundant about the performances, story, and direction, the most notable aspect to it is the deliberate title reference to the infamous 1915 film.
Parker reportedly did this purposely to note the contrast between the silent film’s notoriety in promoting racist views against African-Americans. He sees his work as a panacea in bridging 1915 America with 2016 America to promote a sense of racial healing.
Trying to put this in perspective is equivalent to trying to understand what forms in the minds of people within the span of a century. That same time frame more or less makes up the entire history of Hollywood where it’s believed the original “The Birth of a Nation” instigated racist views.
It’s possible the 1915 film influenced the racial views of someone closely linked to your family when you consider the influential production values. Nobody had seen a film like it prior, and it influenced every cinematic approach each ensuing year.
Yet, all evidence points to director D.W. Griffith being stunned that so many people took his film the wrong way. His “Intolerance” in 1916 was even designed as a follow-up to offset the notion he promoted the KKK and inspired hatred of African-Americans. Regardless, you can’t turn away from the realities the film inspired. With the Ku Klux Klan once using it as a recruiting tool, we can only guess how many individuals absorbed a misguided message and brought it into the gene pool.
In this regard, we may have to look at D.W. Griffith in a new light. Did he simply have a judgment lapse in film interpretation, or was it covertly deliberate?
The Responsibility of Depicting the Past
One thing we’ve learned about filmmakers who depict historical events is that the director’s own vision sometimes gets in the way. While you’ll find many examples of great movies depicting history, few of them interpret all events correctly. “Birth of a Nation” might have given as much influence in continuing this idea as it did in forming racist views. And, as with racism, things haven’t completely changed.
Films about history still receive scrutiny about facts and whether they’re bringing a revisionist take on past events. Many of those films depict some of the world’s worst humanistic events. Inaccuracies are still prevalent, though, perhaps based on the D.W. Griffith precedent of supporting the art of interpretation in film.
Rather than look at 1915’s “Birth of a Nation” as an intentional ploy to wrongly depict a race, we may have to look at it as a lack of responsibility and interpretive error. Maybe that should bring a level of forgiveness considering there wasn’t a precedent to go on, while simultaneously creating a new precedent.
The question now is whether Nate Parker’s new film can really correct the wrongs. While the story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion is important and has facts to back up the events, historians will always argue about whether specific scenes are truly accurate.
Depicting the Past in the Future
Parker’s intention to repair injustice around the world with his film is a noble goal, even if it’s likely to further inflame the white supremacy we still see in our society. The film may not completely repair race relations, but it may bring a new accountability in movies depicting historical events.
As too much of the past continues to be forgotten, movies have a more significant duty to not have any ambiguity in their interpretations. Even if this might collide with artistic intention, showcasing the fullest sense of historical reality in a film is more essential than ever.
What might surprise you is that more people than you think protested Griffith’s cinematic angle in 1915. It’s proof not everyone was easily manipulated by the then new powerful medium of artistry in movies.
If it seems like history repeats itself, movies are still clearly influential in forming personal perceptions. As a secondary goal, let’s hope the new “Birth of a Nation” sets off a new wave of films correcting wrongs that long-ago films might have influenced in our culture.