Segment from Real to Reel

Books on Tape

Historian Robert Jackson tells us how The Birth of a Nation was meant to be a sort of textbook on the American South.

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Transcript


PETER: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American history guy.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th century guy. And I’m here with Ed Ayers.

ED: 19th century guy.

BRIAN: And Peter Onuf’s with us, the one and only–

PETER: 18th century guy.

BRIAN: All right, lights, camera, action.

ED: In March of 1915, The Birth of a Nation opened in New York City. Today, we know it as a piece of racist propaganda that glorifies the creation of the Ku Klux Klan. But in 1915, it was big business.

ROBERT JACKSON: It may actually be the most successful, profitable film in the history of the medium.

PETER: This is Robert Jackson, a cultural studies professor at the University of Tulsa.

ROBERT JACKSON: It’s a film that cost $2 in a period when a trip to the movies might cost you $0.05 or $0.10. And people not only paid it, but they went back over and over and over again.

BRIAN: The film’s producers hired special trains to bring moviegoers into New York City from New Jersey and Connecticut. They plastered Times Square with billboards. They even had extras dressed up in Klan regalia riding through the city streets on horses.

PETER: The Birth of a Nation was a hit in other parts of the country, too. Its initial theatrical run lasted for years and was released again and again. You could catch it in theaters up until the 1950s.

BRIAN: Now, the film itself was a sprawling historical epic, a silent historical epic. Otherwise, we’d play you some clips. But it told a story of two white families before, during, and after the Civil War.

One family was from the North, the other from the South. In the end, the two white families are united by marriage, and the pain of the war is forgiven. But before the story gets there, the film depicts images of chaos ushered in by the South’s defeat.

ROBERT JACKSON: The major part of the story is set in a small Southern town, in which the authority of white people had been overthrown by the loss of the war and then by this post-war political movement installing black politicians who are portrayed to be incompetent and corrupt. So the rise of the Klan is presented as this very organic movement, a kind of grassroots radical political movement, that seeks to restore balance, to restore authority to white people.

ED: The film’s director, D. W Griffith, didn’t see his film as historical fiction. He saw it as history, plain and simple. When the NAACP protested that The Birth of a Nation was grossly inaccurate, Griffith was shocked.

SPEAKER: He actually offered a sum, I think it was $10,000, as a sort of reward if anyone could find a single detail in the film that wasn’t historically accurate. And when he was confronted with some actual events– the taking hostage of a young white woman in order to force her to marry a black lieutenant governor from a Northern political movement– he became very dismissive and sort of rejected out of hand the suggestion, but never quite dealt with the evidence presented against him.

PETER: No amount of evidence apparently could shake Griffith’s belief that film could narrate history without bias, that it could give viewers the experience of actually being present at past events, that it could revolutionize the way Americans learned history.

ROBERT JACKSON: He thought that movies might even replace textbooks in schools. Griffith was really a kind of literary guy who had read the Bible, and Shakespeare, and the classics, and had been a stage actor himself and was familiar with all kinds of histories of art and literature, and believed that film was probably the most important medium ever created for educational purposes. And this is not something that he is alone in believing. There’s an entire movement of educational filmmaking that proliferated really from the earliest days of the medium all the way into the 1930s.

ED: Around this time, Yale University decided to translate a 50 volume academic history called The Chronicles of America into film. Yep, it sounds like a real blockbuster. The project planned to make an astonishing 33 films going up through the Civil War. But it ran into financial difficulties somewhere around the American Revolution and stopped at number 15. By the ’30s, Hollywood figured out that the serious money lay in entertainment. The era of big budget educational films was over.