D.W. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation, a historical epic of the reconstructed then redeemed South, debuted in the Spring of 1915. You may have heard of President Wilson’s probably-apocryphal remark that the film was like writing history with lightning.
The emotional core of the film, the part that grabbed audience’s hearts and left them stumbling out of the theater in ecstasies of white solidarity, was the lynching of a black man. In the climax of the film, a grim band of terrorists ride to the rescue of their absurd civilization, ready to do what they must to save themselves and their womenfolk from the horrors of freedom and democracy.
I’ve watched it so you don’t have to. While the NAACP boycotted and protested and successfully lobbied to ban the film in some cities, most people who saw it (and a lot of people saw it) seem to have thought the movie succeeded both as entertainment and as history.
The Chicago Tribune called Birth of A Nation “the greatest piece of work” ever done by an American filmmaker, and “in all essential episodes grounded on historical fact.” In London, the Observer enthused, “from first to last the story captivates with thrilling exploit,” and “remarkable realism.” Life magazine declared, “No one who cares for the history of our country should miss seeing this stirring exhibition.”
A 1921 retrospective in Life said that “movie history may be said to date from the day when The Birth of a Nation was first disclosed before the startled eyes of the multitude. It was so immeasurably finer than anything that had been done before that there was no possible standard by which to gauge its quality.”
As a technical filmmaking achievement, this judgment may not be far from the truth. But Life did not stop to ask what sort of country censored sex and profanity in movies while making an ode to terrorism its highest-grossing film to date.
But how did white conservative Protestants react to the film? My expectation would be that most objected to the theater in general, but not the film in particular. So I was surprised to discover yesterday a member of the Reformed Presbyterian Church who saw clearly what most mainstream reviewers did not.
Writing in The Christian Nation, the denomination’s news magazine, W.J. McKnight noted that “The colored population of Boston is greatly agitated” about the movie. I expected him to condescendingly explain why their agitation was unjustified. Instead, he pointed out that the film was based on Thomas Dixon’s popular novel, The Clansman, and that Dixon, “as everybody knows, hates the negro with all his heart, and soul, and strength, and mind, and would like to get all his neighbors, except, perhaps, the negroes, to do the same.” In other words, the black people of Boston had every right and reason to be agitated.
Well now, this was fascinating! Why did McKnight come to have these views, and how common were they in his circles? Certainly it has something to do with him being part of the slightly quirky Reformed Presbyterian Church. But why did he say “everybody knows” Dixon hated black people, when it was obvious most people did not know that (least of all Dixon himself)?
In contrast to mainstream reviews, McKnight called the film “a caricature of history.” How did he come to know this? How common was this knowledge among conservative Protestants? I’d really like to know!
While D.W. Griffith basked in the success of his film and declared that he “loved Negroes” (you know, some of my best friends are black) McKnight called the director “venomous.” McKnight had attended an interracial “indignation meeting” at an African Methodist Church where he learned that the film’s real message was “BACK TO SLAVERY.”
McKnight had apparently already been working among the black residents of Boston, though in what fashion I’m not sure. He mentioned that he had already given some lectures to crowds of hundreds and had more lectures scheduled. It is easy to assume that this ministry was carried on in a paternalistic fashion typical of the day. But that’s the thing about paternalistic ministry: it can’t control its effects in the way it purports to do. Sometimes the paternalist finds himself changing. McKight’s contact with African Americans may have given him insight to see the truth that most white Americans refused to see.