The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation was based on two novels written by Thomas Dixon, Jr.: The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burden, 1865-1900 (1902), which the author described as a “sequel” to Uncle Tom’s Cabin as well as a refutation of Stowe’s novel, and The Clansman, An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905). Born in North Carolina near the end of the Civil War, Dixon had strong ties to the Confederacy and close relatives among the early leaders of the Ku Klux Klan.

David Wark Griffith — director, producer, and co-author of Birth of a Nation – was born in Kentucky, a border state, but was the son of a Confederate officer whose romantic views of the South shaped his own perspective. In 1910, Griffith directed the first film made in Hollywood and established himself as a leader in the new industry. Birth of a Nation greatly enhanced his reputation. Variety, in a review of the film published on March 12, 1915, described Griffith as “the world’s best film director,” noting that he had done “more to make filming an art than any one person.”

The artistic and technical qualities of Birth of a Nation were not, however, the issue. Rather, the NAACP challenged the historical accuracy of the film and protested against the racist depictions of African Americans. Neither of these concerns at the time Birth of a Nation was released was considered sufficient grounds for censoring a film. The National Board of Censorship, a self-regulating board established by the industry, based their decisions on whether a film encouraged immorality or criminal behavior. Consequently, the subcommittee that viewed Birth of a Nation in January 20, 1915 approved the film for a general audience.

On the following day, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in the case of Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio (236 U.S.230). The Court found that an Ohio law passed in 1913, which established a board of censors to review and approve all films intended to be shown in the state, did not violate the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of expression. The justices reasoned that “the exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit” and therefore should “not be regarded … as part of the press of the country or as organs of public opinion.” The unanimous opinion noted that films “may be used for evil,” and for that reason, the Court concluded, “[w]e cannot regard [the censorship of movies] as beyond the power of government.” [See David M. Rabban, Free Speech in Its Forgotten Years (Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 174.]

Regardless of the Supreme Court’s ruling, NAACP leadership was reluctant to call for censorship of Birth of a Nation. Committed to the principle of civil rights, the organization’s leaders took a generous view of the First Amendment and the protections it provides for freedom of expression. The danger posed to African Americans—most notably the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, the sharp rise in the number of lynchings, and the acts of violence associated with viewings of the film—tipped the balance and led to a nationwide campaign to censor Griffith’s production. Efforts to suppress Birth of a Nation were largely unsuccessful, and the resulting publicity brought in larger audiences.

The Los Angeles branch of the NAACP led the way by calling on the local board of censorship to ban the official premiere in February 1915. When that effort failed, branch leaders met with the mayor, the chief of police, and the city council. The council passed a resolution asking the board of censors to ban the film and called for an emergency ordinance to forbid its showing. The board failed to respond, and the branch took their case to court. Asserting that the film would threaten public safety, they sought an injunction to prohibit showing of the film. The court granted the injunction, but limited its scope to a single afternoon matinee, while permitting the evening premiere and all subsequent exhibitions.

The failure of the L.A. branch to achieve its objectives demonstrated the need for national leadership. However, variations on the Los Angeles experience would become the norm as the national and/or branch offices appealed to local and state governments for support. Public officials were either reluctant to act for political reasons or lacked authority to intervene. The principal exception was Kansas, where the governor of the state was also the president of the Topeka branch of the NAACP and a member of the state board of censors.

Despite the fact that millions of Americans viewed Birth of a Nation in 1915, resulting in enormous profits, Griffith decided to release the film again in 1922. The NAACP renewed its campaign, petitioning the Board of Censorship in New York to revoke Griffith’s permit to show the film. Not much had changed in the intervening half dozen year. On December 8, 1922, Joseph Levinson, the Commissioner for New York State, revoked the license. He based his decision on the “immorality” depicted in the film, its historical accuracy, and the racist massage. Levinson wrote:

“A photoplay that at any time aids in creating a feeling of ill-will against any group, is a menace. But at this particular period, when the whole world is involved in racial controversies, when our own country, our newspapers are filled daily with stories of the evils of racial animosities, the exhibition of such a photoplay definitely calculated to arouse racial hatred is most dangerous and is likely the means of precipitating violence … and property destruction. The purpose of the motion picture regulatory law under which the Commission functions is to prevent the exhibition of pictures of this type …”

The Board of Censorship overturned Levinson’s ruling, providing that cuts were made in the film.

Addition Information: 

In February 1915, upon viewing The Birth of a Nation at a special White House screening, President Woodrow Wilson reportedly remarked, “It’s like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” This line has appeared in numerous books and articles over the past seventy years. This article examines the history of this alleged quotation and the sources where it has appeared. The article weighs the evidence that Wilson effusively praised in these words one of the most racist major movies in American history.

Birth of Nation was also the first movie shown in the White House, in the East Room, on February 18, 1915. The movie is a three hour of racist propaganda — starting with the Civil War and ending with the Ku Klux Klan riding in to save the South from black rule during the Reconstruction era.

**First part:

Directions: Using the reading information in the attached file, answer the following questions.

Parameters

Your answers should exhibit careful thought and logical reasoning and provide evidence for your position. Each post should be at least 5-7 long sentences. Use correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

Birth of a Nation Video (Links to an external site.)

Answer:

1. Explain why the NAACP tried to prohibit the showing of Birth of a Nation.

2. Explain why government officials were reluctant to censor the film.

3. How should one feel when their President agrees with racist rhetoric regarding their citizens?

——————————————————————————————

**second part:

The new deal v. COVID-19 relief

Directions:

Read the following article in the link and answer the question.

https://www.cnn.com/2021/03/04/politics/stimulus-senate-democrats-proposal/index.html (Links to an external site.) (Biden’s COVID-19 Relief article)

 

****In what ways is Biden’s COVID-19 Relief bill similar to FDR’s New Deal Plan?

Your answer should exhibit careful thought and logical reasoning and provide evidence for your position. Each post should be at least 5-7 long sentences. Use correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

 

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