D. W. Griffith’s evil, racist filmThe Birth of a Nation is widely regarded as the most popular silent movie ever made. I believe this reputation is based on a misinterpretation of its box office records.
But it made its extraordinary gross mostly because of its unique release strategy and extraordinarily high ticket prices — not because it was extraordinarily popular.
Most movies of the 1910s were distributed the way they are now. A studio would rent prints to theaters across the country, and those theaters would split the box office revenue with the studio.
In 1915, there were more than 10,000 theaters across the country, and the average ticket price for a movie was between 10¢ and 15¢.
But Birth of a Nation charged $2 for most seats, sixteen times what movie-goers were used to paying. That’s the equivalent of a theater charging $148 a ticket today.
How did it get away with this?
The Birth of a Nation wasn’t the first film to charge such high prices. Tickets for the 1914 Italian epic Cabiria ranged from 25¢ to $2. So it followed that film’s successful pattern.
The producers told the public this was no ordinary movie. This movie was a spectacle — a film that could only be appreciated in a particular type of quality theater — at quality prices.
The studio built up a tremendous amount of advance buzz, with screenings in Los Angeles and at the White House for President Woodrow Wilson. Then for its first few years of release, Birth of a Nation was shown only in upscale locations like New York’s Liberty Theater and similar places in San Francisco and Los Angeles. By January 1916, it had been distributed to only twelve locations but had sold more than $2 million in tickets.
The producers eventually did lower their standards for qualifying theaters (unofficially, of course!), and the film gained wider distribution in larger and mid-size cities across the country. Ticket prices weren’t always $2, but they were still much higher than tickets for the other movies playing in town.
So The Birth of a Nation made more money than most silent films by selling fewer actual tickets.
It’s impossible to know precisely how many tickets The Birth of a Nation sold. Many reports have grossly exaggerated its popularity — but we do have some contemporary estimates.
In August 1915, the New York Press estimated 400,000 people had seen the film. By February 1916, people had purchased an estimated 5 million tickets. By June 1917, the number was up to 10 million.
Ticket sales began to slow at this point, but they continued to trickle in. All tickets from 1915 to 1927 were between 25¢ and $2, with most on the higher end. If we estimate an average of $1 a ticket, we find the film sold 18 million tickets by the end of the silent era.
The 1914 Western The Spoilers sold an estimated 17.5 million tickets in its first year; a re-release sold about 13.3 million more.
Popular? Very. But it’s not the unparalleled hit many historians make it out to be.
SOURCES: Block, Alex Ben., and Lucy Autrey Wilson. George Lucas Blockbusting: a Decade-by-Decade Survey of Timeless Movies, Including Untold Secrets of Their Financial and Cultural Success. New York: ItBooks, 2010. https://books.google.com/books?vid=ISBN9780061963452.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, and the 100th anniversary of the birth of Hollywood. That’s no coincidence. The first true blockbuster – the movie that helped create the modern industry – was director D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. If it had been any other film, the movie industry would be celebrating 2015 as a Jubilee Year, complete with historical programs and special Blu-Ray box sets. But instead, the anniversary has been met mostly with silence.
A few critics wrote about the film’s dark legacy when the anniversary of its release passed in February. I thought about writing something, but decided against it. I wanted to ignore it, and pretend it didn’t happen.
But the attack on the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina last week made me re-think that decision. The killer in Charleston- like thousands of white supremacist terrorists before him – made use of propaganda and symbols popularized by Birth of a Nation. How can I help fight these ideas if I don’t talk about them?
Based on the novel The Clansman, Birth of a Nation features reenactments of the Civil War that paint the Confederacy in the best possible light. After the war, it portrays Reconstruction as tyranny, and climaxes with the Ku Klux Klan riding in to save the city from black men (played by white actors in blackface) who are trying to rape white women.
We screened Birth of a Nation in the first film class I took, as a freshman. Our instructor warned us about the racism we would see, but told us to look past it and focus on the filmmaking techniques Griffith used. As a senior, I took an African Americans in Film class. This instructor refused to screen it, and said the movie’s importance had been exaggerated by white critics.
“The Birth of a Nation” is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s “The Triumph of the Will,” it is a great film that argues for evil.”
Ignoring the film is impossible. So, what do we do with this history of evil?
In the 1980’s and 1990’s French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard made a series of television programs called Histoire(s) du Cinéma. It splices together scenes and frames from decades of films, overlaid with a track of Godard musing on various themes or (because Godard is quintessentially French) occasionally the voice of a skinny girl reading poetry in a garden.
Although in many ways, the project is a celebration of cinema, Godard bluntly implicates the art form as complicit in the worst horrors of the past century. Would the Nazis have been as effective without their mastery of film? “Murnau and Freund invented the lighting of Nuremberg when Hitler didn’t even have been money in the Munich bars,” Godard says.
Evil is part of cinema, in the present, past and future. We can’t ignore it, and it’s impossible to simply extract and throw away.
I’m caught up in this film. The movie is racist. Does this mean I’m racist?
Griffith’s mastery of his art is so complete that it is impossible not to be engrossed in his storytelling. How can you not sympathize with the poor, downtrodden Camerons? This creates in uncomfortable feelings and questions for most white viewers.
“Griffith certainly did not set out to make a biased film, and indeed most of the incessant storm that has continued ever since has been whipped up and sustained not by Negro interests but by political interests–ironically, the same sort of circumstance which caused the unrest in the South in the first place!””
This sort of thinking isn’t unique to Birth of a Nation. Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl has spent decades trying to rehabilitate her image, even making the absurd claims that Triumph of the Will and Olympia were not fascist propaganda at all, but relatively straightforward documentaries.
This is why we need to teach film in public schools.
More now than at any time since the invention of the printing press, the West is an audio-visual culture. Teenagers coming out of high school are voting and buying guns for the first time. They need to understand that just because a film (or a YouTube video) makes something feel right doesn’t mean it is right. If they’re never told the story of Birth of a Nation, they won’t get that lesson.
ISIS is using filmic techniques to recruit young people to terrorism in exactly the same way the KKK does. A basic understanding of these techniques can help arm our young people against the power of propaganda. They need to see and hear the ways in which great art can serve great evil.
In 1915, D. W. Griffith made The Birth of a Nation, and spent the rest of his life trying to prove he wasn’t racist. The passage of time allows us to view Griffith’s racism from a distance that we don’t have with contemporary white liberal filmmakers. He honestly seemed to believe that Birth of a Nation – in which the Ku Klux Klan saves a white woman from being raped by a man in blackface – wasn’t racist. To prove his point, he made Intolerancein 1916 and Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl in 1919.
Broken Blossoms seems to be a genuine attempt to show sympathy for Chinese immigrants. Cheng Haun, played by Richard Barthelmess, is a peaceful man who rescues Lillian Gish from her abusive father.
Unfortunately, Griffith was too blind to his own prejudice to realize that his use of condescending stereotypes and “yellowface” actor might be offensive.
Richard Brookhiser popularized the term “numinous negro” in a National Review article in 2001. Brookhiser and other commentators describe the “numinous negro” as a black person who is treated as “spiritually elevated” and saintly by white people. He or she is de-Africanized, feminized and made “safe.” The character is portrayed as a selfless, uncomplaining servant who exists for the purpose of helping the white character and promoting racial harmony. He asks for nothing in return from the main, white protagonist.
Nearly all of which applies to Huan, in Broken Blossoms. He is not de-Chineseized, but his ethnicity is exoticized instead. As Roger Ebert notes, Huan is totally de-sexualized.
And in “Broken Blossoms” he told perhaps the first interracial love story in the movies–even though, to be sure, it’s an idealized love with no touching.
In our pop culture history, D. W. Griffith is the iconic example of the defensive, failing reaction that white Americans often give when accused of racism.
Even if you’re not interesting in studying stereotypes, Broken Blossoms might still be worth seeing. It’s a classic of melodrama and Lillian Gish gives perhaps the best silent performances by an actress I’ve seen. Her smile will break your heart.