D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation: A History of "The Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time"

D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation: A History of "The Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time"

D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation: A History of "The Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time"

D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation: A History of "The Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time"

Synopsis

In this deeply researched and vividly written volume, Melvyn Stokes illuminates the origins, production, reception and continuing history of this ground-breaking, aesthetically brilliant, and yet highly controversial movie.
By going back to the original archives, particularly the NAACP and D. W. Griffith Papers, Stokes explodes many of the myths surrounding The Birth of a Nation (1915). Yet the story that remains is fascinating: the longest American film of its time, Griffith's film incorporated many new features, including the first full musical score compiled for an American film. It was distributed and advertised by pioneering methods that would quickly become standard. Through the high prices charged for admission and the fact that it was shown, at first, only in "live" theaters with orchestral accompaniment, Birth played a major role in reconfiguring the American movie audience by attracting more middle-class patrons. But if the film was a milestone in the history of cinema, it was also undeniably racist. Stokes shows that the darker side of this classic movie has its origins in the racist ideas of Thomas Dixon, Jr. and Griffith's own Kentuckian background and earlier film career. The book reveals how, as the years went by, the campaign against the film became increasingly successful. In the 1920s, for example, the NAACP exploited the fact that the new Ku Klux Klan, which used Griffith's film as a recruiting and retention tool, was not just anti-black, but also anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish, as a way to mobilize new allies in opposition to the film.
This crisply written book sheds light on both the film's racism and the aesthetic brilliance of Griffith's filmmaking. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the cinema.

Excerpt

In 1915, a movie was released that changed the history of American cinema. Directed by David W. Griffith, it was originally known as The Clansman. Soon after its West Coast première, however, it was renamed The Birth of a Nation. This film would bring about a revolution in American moviegoing. The Birth of a Nation was the first American film to be twelve reels long and to last around three hours. It was the first to cost $100,000 to produce. It was the first to be shown mainly in regular theaters at the same admission prices of up to $2 that were charged for live performances. It was the first to have a specially compiled musical score to accompany the film’s exhibition. It was the first movie to be shown at the White House, the first to be projected for judges of the Supreme Court and members of Congress, the first to be viewed by countless millions of ordinary Americans, some of whom had made long journeys to see it, the first to run in so many places for months at a time, the first to attract viewers who returned to see it, sometimes again and again, and the first to have its existence treated as a story in its own right in local newspapers. Although it was not the first motion picture in the United States to be distributed by means of road shows, it was the first to be shown so extensively this way. The men who advertised and publicized it created ways of promoting movies that would soon become standard across the American movie industry. In many ways, in fact, Birth of a Nation was the first “blockbuster”: it was the most profitable film of its time (and perhaps, adjusted for inflation, of all time), it helped open up new markets (including South America) for American films, and it may eventually have been seen by worldwide audiences of up to 200,000,000.

To understand the impact of The Birth of a Nation, it is necessary to see it in the context of early twentieth-century U.S. cinema. Before Birth was made . . .

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