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.
At the end of the film, the doctor is captured. Driven mad from visions of the ghosts of his victims, he is taken to an asylum.
Although parallels between Caligari, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler and the true psyche of 1920’s Germany is debated, the relation between Fritz Lang’s sequel and German politics is undeniable.
During the ten years after Gambler, Germany descended into political chaos. The country’s electoral system forced its centrist parties to negotiate with extremists on both the left and the right, who roamed the streets murdering opponents and – in the case of the Nazis – terrorizing as many Jews as possible. The Nazis won a plurality of seats in July 1932, just before Lang started filming The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.
When Testament opens, Dr. Mabuse is locked away in his cell, scribbling furiously. Hospital director Dr. Baum collects the notes, which give instructions on how to commit various crimes. Baum praises Mabuse’s genius mind to a class of students, unmistakably mimicking Nazi gestures.
Inspector Lohmann discovers that a secret gang of criminals is replicating Mabuse’s instructions to the letter. The gang is organized in a manner similar to the Nazi Party was. Some gang members wonder about their boss’s plans. Their crimes aren’t making any money. Instead, they seem designed to create fear and chaos. (Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker in The Dark Knightwas inspired by Dr. Mabuse.)
After the war, Lang stated that he made Testament as an anti-Nazi allegory.
“Thus I hoped to expose the masked Nazi theory of the necessity to deliberately destroy everything which is precious to people. Then, when everything collapsed and they were thrown into utter despair, they would try to find help in the “new order.””
Although Lang probably exaggerated some of his anti-Nazi activities, (such as his stories of a midnight train ride out of Germany after Goebbels offered to put him in charge of the Nazi film program) critic Michael Walker examined the evidence in a 2011 journal article and found Lang’s claims about Testament credible.
Walker lists many parallels, so I’ll focus only on my favorite. One of the most visually arresting scenes of Testament exposes the Mabuse propaganda machine. When gang members are to receive instruction, they enter a room with a drawn curtain. Behind the curtain is the shadow of “the boss,” who issues orders. They never see the man behind the curtain.
One of the gang members and his girlfriend take a peek. They see a cardboard cutout and a speaker.
Testament was scheduled for release on March 23, 1933 – the day newly-appointed Chancellor Hitler asked the Reichstag to vote him emergency powers in the Enabling Act. Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Goebbels first delayed, then canceled Testament’s premiere, as a threat to public health and safety.
Hollywood has released more movies about slavery in ancient Rome than slavery in America. And the rare popular films that do directly discuss the issue, such as Amistad and Lincoln, are more concerned with the political battles fought by the white leading characters than they are the black experience of slavery.
At a wide glance, this seems very odd. Slavery was the dominant political and cultural issue on the continent for at least a century. Hollywood producers have never shied away from showing violence or cruelty, and political activism has always been a terrific way to win awards. Roots was immensely popular with television viewers, proving there’s an audience for the subject.
But to those of us living in the former Confederacy, cinema’s silence doesn’t seem unusual. Even in the liberal corners of the south, there’s a tremendous unwillingness to acknowledge of slavery. We’re practically tripping over Confederate monuments and Civil War battlefields, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen as much as a plaque to commemorate the former slaves who helped build this area. Earlier this year I attended a lecture on the 150th anniversary of a local battle. We heard about the history and geography of the city in great detail, and were read a lengthy list of the dead on both sides of the conflict.
But the “s word” was not spoken.
Very early in its history, Hollywood adopted a neo-Confederate view of slavery — that slaveholders were basically good people living in a different time who shouldn’t be judged harshly. Slavers usually treated their property well, and whether slave or servant, African Americans are better off serving white people anyway.
That’s the importance of 12 Years a Slave. For millions of Americans, the movie clips played at the Academy Awards in March will be the first time they are exposed to the historical reality of slavery.
That’s also where 12 Years a Slave gets its power. It, and last year’s Django Unchained, are the first mainstream movies to portray plantation owners are villains and to show slavery from a slave’s point of view.
But the violence in 12 Years a Slave is not Tarantino’s violence. It’s been compared to Schindler’s List in that it emphasizes the dehumanizing, unnecessary nature of the sadism inflicted upon the victims. It presents us with a picture of an evil that cannot be justified, and stands as a record of the unique horrors of plantation slavery.
It’s odd to praise a film for taking the seemingly uncontroversial stand that “slavery was evil.” But even 150 years later, that’s a rare thing to hear.
Imitation of Life could almost be a parody of everything Americans find embarrassing about our social attitudes in the 1950’s. The woman who chooses a career over marriage finds herself empty and her family falling apart. The teenage girl listening to records finds herself seduced into a life of sin. And, black people are perfectly content to wait on their generous white masters employers.
Though raised practically as sisters, the film’s white teen (left) and black teen (right) have very different hobbies.
A quick plot summary — aspiring actress Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) lives alone with her daughter, Susie (Sandra Dee). Lora hires Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) as her live-in maid, and Annie brings along her light-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner). Lora ends up having great success and takes care of both girls and of Annie financially. Sarah Jane passes for white, but her guises are constantly frustrated when her dark-skinned mother shows up.
Imitation of Life is a remake of a 1934 film, based on a 1933 novel. I watched the 1934 film in the class African Americans in Film taught by Carmen Coustaut when I was an undergrad at the University of Arkansas. At the time, I imagined we watched the ’34 version instead of the better-known ’59 because the ’59 was somehow more progressive and less suitable to our examination of stereotypes.
I was wrong.
Early on the film, there is a scene where the two girls play with dolls. There is a white doll and a black doll. Susie instinctively gives the black doll to Sarah Jane, but Sarah Jane tosses it to the ground and demands the white doll. I read this as a nod to Brown v. Board of Education, decided 4 years before the film was released. Perhaps this was the subversion one online critic had written about.
But this hope was unfounded. As in the 1934 film, maid Annie seems to have no desires, hopes of dreams outside of taking care of Lora. She fits the “mammy” stereotype to a T. She is desexualized and depersonalized. She is scolding but good-natured and cares for the white woman and her daughter in a sweet, tender way.
And, as in the 1934 film, no one speaks out against racism. When Sarah Jane is made to feel inferior at school or is beaten by her boyfriend, no one condemns the racists — instead, they talk about how awful it is that Sarah Jane tells white folks she is white.
And when Sarah Jane does pass, she ends up working at a burlesque show. Since she is ‘really black,’ she apparently cannot succeed at ‘white’ jobs. The problem, we’re told, isn’t that whites are racist against blacks, but that blacks really can’t be like whites. Instead, they should embrace their blackness and be like the well-cared-for, saintly Annie.
The especially ugly part is the way director Douglas Sirk anticipates these criticisms and counters them. When Sarah Jane complains about the way she is treated, he plays dark, dramatic music.
This is the tell that makes the entire movie more insidious. It isn’t the type of oblivious or casual racism that has always pervaded Hollywood, and continues to infect film production today. The director recognizes the stereotypes he’s including, has heard criticism of them, and is doubling-down. The villain in the film isn’t the racists, but the blacks who agitate.
This wasn’t an uncommon feeling in America in 1959. The post-reconstruction peace between the North and South depended on a mutual agreement to keep African Americans “in their place.” Read an excerpt from Joe Franklin’s book on silent films, published the same year Imitation of Life was released. He’s writing about D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation, which climaxes with the KKK saving white women from being raped by recently-freed blacks.
“The film’s alleged anti-Negro bias has provoked controversy ever since the film’s release, and further comment here would certainly solve nothing… 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!”
After Sarah Jane’s parody, Lora convinces her to apologize by pointing out that she has always been nice to her. She’s making explicit the implicit defense of Hollywood racism for the past century — this movie can’t be racist, because the white protagonist patronizingly plays savior to is nice to her loyal grateful black servant friend.
Although some of the particular parts of the film have been left behind in the 1950’s, the basic template has not been. It seems that at every step of the way, Hollywood trips over itself trying to prove it’s not racist while simultaneously entrenching racism and blaming the people who point that fact out.
The 9 1/2 hour film Shoah consists of eyewitness testimony of those who participated in and were the victims of the slaughter of 6 million European Jews by the Nazi regime. Claude Lanzmann interviews survivors, former Nazis, train drivers, and neighbors. There is no archival footage – Lanzmann overlays the interviews with footage of how the extermination camps looked when he arrived, in the 1980’s.
The Holocaust was still a memory when Lanzmann took up his camera in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The film is as far removed from the events as a film about U.S. involvement in Vietnam would be today. I’ve had the privilege of hearing from two concentration camp survivors in person. When Lanzmann travelled to villages in Poland, he was swarmed in the streets by curious people who were eager to about life in a town where hundreds of thousands were put to death.
Shortly after the end of the war, it was decided to cast the German populace as good people, seduced by their wicked leaders. How could such a civilized nation be tricked into doing such barbarous deeds? Propaganda, socialism, poverty, and insufficient commitment to Western liberalism usually get the blame. But in political debate, it’s hard to find something that won’t “eventually lead to the Holocaust!”
Lanzmann simplifies all this. The Holocaust happened because people hate Jews. The Poles he interviews are what Americans would call “casual racists.” When Lanzmann brings an extermination camp survivor back to the town that let the Nazis take him away, they talk about how glad they are to see their Jewish friend again — while one man recites the Christ-killer myth in front of a church Jews were rounded up in, oblivious to his own anti-Semitism.
Lanzmann is able to confront us, his audience, with the historical reality of the Holocaust. It’s not an abstract philosophical point that can be used to criticize contemporary politics (Munich, Fahrenheit 9/11, X-Men: Origins) or subject matter for Oscar-bait (Schindler’s List, The Pianist).
His interviews with the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust are disturbing. Some of them use a hidden camera, recording Lanzmann’s promise that the subject only being interviewed for background. (Lanzmann’s autobiography The Patagonian Hare goes into fascinating detail about his deception.)
None of them are willing to take responsibility for any of their actions. Each assures Lanzmann they themselves had nothing against the Jews and were ‘only following orders.’ Franz Suchomel even absurdly argues with Lanzmann about the number of people the Nazis could kill in one day at Treblinka:
Lanzmann: To “process” 18,000 people, to liquidate them… Suchomel: Mr. Lanzmann, that’s an exaggeration. Believe me. Lanzmann: How many? Suchomel: 12,000 to 15,000. But we had to spend half the night at it.
When Lanzmann interviews one of the Nazis in charge of the Warsaw ghetto, he finds more evasion. Dr. Franz Grassler claims to remember very little, (“I recall more clearly my pre-war mountaineering trips…”) and takes notes of the dates, acting surprised. (July 7, 1941? That’s the first time I’ve re-learned a date…. So in July I was already there!”) Dr. Grassler recasts the ghettos as a humanitarian mission, meant to keep Jews alive and typhus from spreading.
The travel agent who got the Nazis group discounts on the train tickets they bought for Jews, the SS officer who killed families and the villagers who did nothing were not college students in a Stanley Milgram experiment. Lanzmann intercuts the interviews of the perpetrators with one of historian Raul Hilberg, who famously argued against the “banality of evil” thesis.
But Lanzmann refuses to offer psychological or political excuses. A person does not have to be insane, sadistic, compliant or brainwashed to commit evil. Lanzmann disengages from the ‘comic book Nazi’ and the ‘just following orders’ tropes. He shows us men and women who seem no more remarkable than those we see on trial for murder every day.
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.