On this day (February 8th) in 1915, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation premiered in Los Angeles. This silent film was America’s first feature-length motion picture and a box-office smash–lasting an unprecedented three hours.
Released under the title, The Clansman (at least for the first few weeks) , the movie debuted only after Griffith sought an injunction from the court. The film provides a highly subjective history of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. It, of course, made a lasting impact on our collective cultural memories when it comes to framing race and the history of the South. Birth of a Nation caused riots in several cities and was banned in others but was seen by millions.
When Griffith released the film in 1915, many groups protested; the NAACP published a 47-page pamphlet titled “Fighting a Vicious Film: Protest Against The Birth of a Nation,” in which they referred to the film as “three miles of filth.” W. E. B. Du Bois published scathing reviews in The Crisis, spurring a heated debate among the National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures as to whether the film should be shown in New York. However, President (and former history professor) Woodrow Wilson viewed the film (it was the first film to be shown in the White House) and proclaimed it not only historically accurate, but like “history writ with lightning.” (Arrrgghhh!)The film set the stage for what would be an on-going struggle to improve the portrayal of blacks on film.