From Shorts to Features • Birth of a Nation and BlacKkKlansman

Greenscreening Series #03

What was it like to watch movies in the earliest days? How did the industry move from shorts to feature films? And what's the big deal with D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915)?

August 26, 2022

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This Time on Greenscreening

Up to this point, cinema was mostly about exploring what was possible with the medium. As we’ll see, cinema was waiting for someone to make an artistic breakthrough. And this week, we'll talk about that breakthrough.

We’ll discuss the development of feature films, and look at one of the most important and most controversial films in American film history, D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915).

I do not recommend watching Birth of a Nation in its entirety. Birth is an essential film to study for many reasons, but it's three hours long. You can understand the film through viewing excerpts and reading about the film’s importance. I think it’s a better use of time to watch a much more entertaining and relatable film that confronts Birth more than 100 years later, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. So do watch Griffith’s short film A Corner in Wheat, watch some clips from Birth of a Nation, and if you have time, BlacKkKlansman.

This week’s films:

  • BlacKkKlansman (2018) directed by Spike Lee. You could consider this film optional. But if you haven't seen it you really should. You can find out where to stream it through ReelGood.

  • A Corner in Wheat (1909) directed by D.W. Griffth. A one-reel film, a good introduction to Griffith, and an example of what kinds of films were shown in Nickelodeons.

  • Excerpts from Birth of a Nation (1915):

    • The Civil War sequences from Birth of a Nation (~20 minutes):

* The Little Colonel returns home after the war:

* The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln:

From Méliès and Porter to Feature Films and Birth of a Nation

The Nickelodeon

What was it like to watch a movie in the time of Porter, Melies, and D.W. Griffith?

Before it was a children’s television network, the nickelodeon was the local theater in the early 20th century.

These were the first spaces dedicated to the communal viewing of films.

The name came from the cost, five cents, coupled with the name of the luxurious national stage theater in France, the Odeon.

Luxurious these were not.

Nickelodeons were usually storefronts converted to very simple theaters. Paying a nickel, you’d step inside a small concession area and into the screening room. This would be a small room, maybe a few thousand square feet in size. In a big city, the room would be furnished with cheap imitation decorations trying to give the image of class, like an opera house.

Now you had to find a seat. In most places, the screening room was a ramshackle assemblage of folding chairs. Lots of them. The goal of the nickelodeon was to pack as many people into the space as physically and legally possible - which was 199 people - to avoid being regulated as a theater. Some theaters also had standing room available in the back.

In order to ensure people could see the picture, the room had to be pitch black. So you’d fumble your way past other people to locate an open seat, the only light coming from the film already in progress.

This was before air conditioning and contemporary standards of hygiene, so the place would smell fairly strongly. If you were lucky, or in a more middle class neighborhood, there might be an electric fan to offer some relief, but that would also add to the noise.

Oh, the noise. Not from the films, obviously, as they were still silents in those days. But there would be an upright piano or a musical ensemble playing in the front. And many people around you would be talking, using the theater more as a third space, like a cafe. The effect was probably not unlike a loud restaurant. And then concessions barkers would enter the room, offering snacks like they do at a baseball game.

If you were young and with a date, you might look for seats near the back corner, for a dark, private corner to kiss and cuddle. Nickelodeons were some of the only places young couples could find privacy in those days. Yes, making out at the movies is as old as the movies themselves.

If you were in a major city, you’d hear two or three languages spoken, as the nickelodeons were popular with immigrants. In fact, nickelodeons were a very important part of the early 1900s immigrant experience, as many immigrant families owned and operated nickelodeons. Additionally, movies were a way for immigrants to learn some of the cultural norms of their newly adopted country; at least, that’s how some of the early filmmakers viewed their art.

Most likely, a film would already be in progress as you took your seat. The policy was "come anytime, stay as long as you like," and this was a feature of moviegoing that continued until 1960. The average moviegoer watched films nonlinearly, arriving at some point in the middle and often staying into the next screening to catch the rest.

How popular were nickelodeons? Incredibly. At their peak, around 1910-12, there were over 10,000 in the US. For reference, there are currently about 15,000 Starbucks coffee locations in the US.

To keep people coming back, exhibitors needed lots of rotating material. And there were only a handful of studios to provide them - Thomas Edison was determined to ensure that, by any means necessary. We'll come back to Edison next week. For now, this is where we meet D.W. Griffith, who started in the age of nickelodeons, and ushered in the golden age of Hollywood.

D.W. Griffith

David Wark Griffith was born in Kentucky in the 1870s. His father had served as a Colonel in the Confederate Army, and when Griffith was young, spent a great deal of his time drinking, telling stories of the Old South and the Civil War, and railing against the direction the country was headed in. Griffith’s family wasn’t wealthy to begin with, and when his father passed away, they fell on hard times.

Griffith was an avid reader and dreamed of working in theater. He made his way to New York and started acting, but acting was supposed to be his way into playwriting. He saw himself as a storyteller in the mold of Dickens or Shakespeare. But his plays weren't having much success finding backers.

Griffith was desperate and a bit burned out, so he approached the Biograph Company to see if they needed a scenario writer. They offered him an acting role instead. At the time, this was an actor’s last resort. Movies were justifiably seen as a cheap medium, not worth sullying one’s professional reputation over. Consider the actors in The Great Train Robbery - not exactly sophisticated roles. But again, Griffith was desperate for money, so he took the gig, performing under a pseudonym.

He soon got his lucky break, when he was called upon to fill in for a sick director. He did a serviceable job, and was given regular work as director. Nickelodeons needed a fresh stream of content, so studios needed capable and efficient directors. At the time, regular work meant making one film every week, sometimes one per day, so Griffith made hundreds of short films.

Griffith worked in nearly every genre, but his specialty was Victorian melodrama, probably influenced by his work on the stage. Interestingly, many early Griffith films were literary adaptations, including adaptations of Dickens, who was a major influence on Griffith’s storytelling. (Side note: imagine what a 12 minute film version of a 600-age Dickens novel would be. The styles of these films usually involved very brief reenactments of key scenes from the novels, with titles to announce which scene. Not very sophisticated storytelling.)

Griffith had better than average storytelling instincts, and so his films were successful. He also had a unique way of working at the time. Coming from theater, he cared a lot about the quality of his actors’ performances, and directed them towards more naturalistic behavior. Additionally, he conducted hours of rehearsals before production. The results were higher quality films than most being produced in those days.

Griffith had a high view of his artistic abilities, and a chip on his shoulder about working in a maligned medium, and his success only fueled his ego. He made increasingly ambitious films, often running significantly over budget. And he began dreaming of a way to elevate the medium to respectability, with a grand spectacle that would rival the great works of the stage or literature.

The Italian Epics and Feature Films

Around this time, the Italian film industry began producing feature films, the first epics. These were often "sword and sandal" films, epics telling stories of ancient Rome and the Bible. In 1914, Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria took the world by storm. The 2-hour film played in vaudeville theaters, orchestral halls, and opera houses, to audiences in the hundreds. It was also shown at the White House South Lawn.

As with other trends, American studios were eager to capitalize. Griffith finally had the permission he needed to make the kind of film he wanted to make. Except he didn’t, not from Biograph.

After Griffith made a four-reel Biblical epic, Judith of Bethulia, mostly in secret and significantly over budget ($18,000), Biograph offered Griffth a promotion. He would oversee all productions at Biograph, but would not direct any productions himself. It was their way of quietly removing a significant risk from their balance sheet, and refocusing the company on producing one-reelers, while retaining Griffith’s storytelling and production talent.

Griffith wasn’t about to give up filmmaking, and wasn't about to go back to focusing on one-reelers. Instead, he left to form his own production company, in partnership with a film exhibitor, and set about fulfilling his dream of making the first truly grand screen spectacle.

Birth of a Nation

Unfortunately, the epic story Griffith chose to adapt was The Clansman, a novel and play about a man who guides his family through the Civil War, Reconstruction, and ultimately the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, which the protagonist joins and leads. Thomas Dixon had written the novel as a kind of retort to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and it had been a tremendous success.

Griffith saw his father’s story told in The Clansman, as well as a reflection of his own views of the South, and his racist beliefs represented as truth.

Borrowing mostly from the stage play, Griffith expanded the story significantly, adding lengthy Civil War battle sequences and more development of the relationship between the two central families, who end up divided by the war but later unified by courtship between sons and daughters.

The resulting film was 12 reels long and cost over $100,000 to make (recall that Judith of Bethulia cost $18,000).

Birth of a Nation is perhaps the most important American movie ever made, for four main reasons. First, the film is a technical masterpiece. Second, Birth of a Nation changed forever how movies were made, shown, and watched. Third, Birth of a Nation was the biggest film ever made, and remained so for a long time afterwards. Fourth, the film is racist propaganda and left a damaging legacy.

A Technical Masterpiece

Audiences had never seen anything like Birth of a Nation. Quite a few Americans had seen the Italian epics, but even those films weren’t on the same scale and magnitude, and didn't employ the same expertise of filmmaking as Birth of a Nation. Griffith filmed dramatic reenactments of Civil War battles with thousands of extras. He deftly moved between establishing shots, wide shots, and close ups to film full-fledged scenes. He used color tinting to much greater effect than anyone else. He cut much more frequently than other filmmakers, making the film much more engaging and dramatic. He used fast-paced tracking shots to heighten action - the most famous being having the camera mounted on a car in front of horses running at full gallop.

The film was also one of the first to have a full planned score, with original music and classical selections. Often, the film was shown with a full orchestra playing, heightening both the prestige of the film and elevating the dramatic tension.

It’s hard as modern moviegoers to grasp the full magnitude of what it would have been like to view this movie. But watch the excerpts I linked above, and consider that Birth of a Nation was made a little over 10 years after A Trip to the Moon and The Great Train Robbery. Or put Birth of a Nation alongside A Corner in Wheat, Griffith’s excellent one-reeler from 1909 - six years earlier. It feels like a different medium altogether. Seeing Birth as a moviegoer in 1915 would have been something like seeing an IMAX movie for the first time after only ever watching movies on a television at home.

As Woodrow Wilson said after seeing the film, “it is like writing history with lightning.” That’s what audiences felt when seeing it, and it’s largely the power of the filmmaking.

Many contemporary critics and the next generation of filmmakers regarded Griffith as the father of American cinema, with Birth of a Nation being his key achievement. Griffith embraced this role and exaggerated his own influence, accepting credit for most of the technical innovations on display in Birth of a Nation. But Griffith didn’t invent the techniques that he employed, but he used them significantly better than any other director had or would for a long time after.

Impact on Movie Production, Distribution, and Consumption:

At the time, Birth of a Nation was the longest film ever made, at 12 reels. Feature films weren’t yet a proven format – many people viewed the Italian epics as novelties. Birth changed all of that.

Instead of releasing in Nickelodeons, Griffith and producers gave the movie a roadshow release, meaning they toured the film around the country, playing in a limited number of cities at a time, like a touring stage production. They played the film in high class theaters with thousands of seats, sold tickets to assigned seats, and set a limited number of screenings per day. As mentioned before, in most cities, they hired full orchestras to play with the film. And the screens in these large theaters would have been huge compared to the screens in nickelodeons.

And Griffith's company charged $2 per ticket instead of a nickel. The ticket price was the equivalent of $50 today. This was much higher class entertainment.

The impact of this release style was tremendous. It wasn’t the model all films would take, but the road show success of Birth helped usher out the age of the Nickelodeon, and usher in the age of movie theaters and movie palaces, reflective of the newer, higher regard due the movies.

And once theater owners learned there was demand for feature films, and that the public was willing to pay more for lengthier features, one-reelers were done. Studios had to follow suit, and graduate to making feature films.

The Biggest Film Ever Made

Birth of a Nation was a massive commercial success. The film toured the nation for years. Years. It also played for 44 straight weeks at a theater in Times Square, New York. Most of the highest grossing films nowadays won't stay in a theater longer than 16-20 weeks.

Due to the way the distribution rights were arranged, no one knows for sure just how much money the film made, but it’s estimated in the first few years, the film grossed about $18 million, with some estimates putting the all-time gross between $50-100 million.

Not adjusting for inflation, the film was the top box office earner of all time for nearly 25 years, until Gone with the Wind. And it  remained in the top 10 all time box office earners until the mid-1960s. Adjusted for inflation, $18 million would put the gross around $1.8 billion, which would make Birth the third highest grossing film ever released, behind Avatar and Titanic.

This film was in the public consciousness for years; truly the first of its kind. I’ve tried to think of a recent example of this kind of cultural phenomenon, but films aren’t really this impactful anymore. I do remember Avatar was in theaters for nearly a year, and it triggered a rebirth of 3D movie releases that lasted at least 5 years. Perhaps it’s Harry Potter, as the books and films captured an entire generation’s imagination (except me, I refused them the first time around and am waiting to experience them with my hypothetical future children). For a non-franchise example, it might be the musical Hamilton, which is still touring seven years after its debut.

Racism and the Legacy of Birth of a Nation

In Hugo, there's a really great scene at the studio, where Melies tells the visiting child, “this is where your dreams come from.” For many people, Birth of a Nation created nightmares.

The film is full of racist stereotypes and false history. The antebellum South is depicted as a harmonious paradise, with the races living peacefully as if slavery was the proper order. The film depicts the South during Reconstruction as chaotic, uncivilized, and violent, driven by the newly-freed Black population taking leadership roles and dominating the White population. Most of the film's Black characters are played by White actors in blackface; their acting is cartoonish and exaggerated.

The film also promotes racial violence and domestic terrorism, by positioning the Ku Klux Klan as heroes and Black soldiers and civilians as villains. At the end of the film, the most famous sequence involves the Klan riding on horseback to save a White family, who is pinned inside a house under siege from Black soldiers. The music chosen to accompany this sequence was Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” giving the sequence an elevated sense of drama and grandeur. The Klan are depicted as heroic, divinely appointed soldiers, saving the South from Reconstruction.

Images from Birth of a Nation are on display in the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., as examples of the harmful and damaging stereotypes African American people have experienced in American popular culture. Birth of a Nation did not invent these stereotypes or its racist philosophy; but it was the most widely viewed film ever made in the United States, so its impact is arguably deeper than any other work of racist propaganda.

After an initial premiere in LA, Dixon (author of The Clansman) called in a favor to an old classmate, President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson agreed to a screening of the film inside the White House, which allowed the film to claim it was the first screened at the White House (and allowing history to ignore Cabiria being shown on the White House South Lawn a year earlier). On the strength of a quote from Wilson, “it is like writing history with lightning, and my one regret is that it is all so terribly true,” the film gained legitimacy and a prestigious and powerful defense against any objection to its content.

There was immediate strong opposition to the film’s release. Many journalists, authors, and historians decried the film as hateful and inaccurate. The NAACP tried unsuccessfully to get the film banned before its release in Boston, and organized protests in several cities. Definitely read the Slate article for more about this battle - it’s an interesting look at early discussions of film censorship and people trying to come to terms with the impact film could have on audiences.

It’s worth noting that while Dixon reveled in the controvery, Griffith was surprised by the reaction against his film. From what I’ve read, Griffith didn’t believe he was making a controversial film, or that his views were controversial. He shared the all-too-common southern belief that living in the south gave him a special understanding of race relations and of Black people that northerners could not appreciate. The racism in Birth of a Nation is Griffith’s truth. In fact, he was so upset by the reaction against his film that his next film was another epic called Intolerance, in which he told stories of historical examples of intolerance leading to violence.

The film revived interest in the Klan, leading to the creation of new local groups and a surge in membership in the 1920s and thereafter. The film promoted racist stereotypes and depicted the Klan as heroic and necessary to preserving the proper order of the South; in reality, in 1871, Congress had passed the Ku Klux Klan Act empowering President Grant to declare martial law and use military force to suppress the Klan, in response to the Klan’s violent disruptions to Reconstruction.

At the same time, as the Slate article points out, the film was also followed by an eightfold increase in membership in the NAACP. So while we trace a line from Birth of a Nation to a rise in racial violence, hate crimes, and domestic terrorism, we can also trace a line from the film to the growth in Civil Rights awareness and activism.

Birth of a Nation also influenced Hollywood’s depictions of Black people and the antebellum South. Hollywood, always eager to “give the people what they want,” leaned into racist stereotypes for decades, often only featuring Black supporting characters subservient to White protagonists. We saw one such character in Sturges' Sullivan's Travels, alongside the scene in the Black church that was praised by the NAACP for its more realistic and positive portrayal of Black characters.

Unfortunately, some producers and exhibitors used the protests attempting to block Birth of a Nation as reason to suppress films by early Black directors, on the grounds of wanting to avoid inciting violence. This inarguably set back the development of Black voices in cinema and led to underrepresentation for decades.

How should we engage with Birth of a Nation today? As I mentioned at the outset, I don’t recommend seeing it in its entirety. But I also don’t believe it’s best to ignore or censor it, while acknowledging that as a White person, I might experience embarrassment when watching the film, but I don’t experience the pain that this film may cause Black viewers.

Should we judge D.W. Griffith for his racism and the harm caused by his film? Can we separate that from his contributions to cinema and his influence on future generations of filmmakers?

I believe that Birth can be educational. We have an obligation to consume media responsibly, and to perform this obligation, we must understand how media works, why it’s effective. We need to understand the potential of art to hurt others even if it doesn’t hurt me, or to function as propaganda that can influence or manipulate people. I believe that we are shaped by what we watch and hear, for better and for worse; I also believe that a lot of what we take from films is what we bring to them.

Birth of a Nation challenges us to think about what perspective films are taking, and what films say about the world. Birth wears its racism on its sleeve and advocates for a world where the Klan is a peacekeeping force. We can see that perspective clearly in 2022 and say it’s wrong. We should try to understand the perspectives displayed in every film we watch.

What do contemporary films say about the world order, or about right and wrong? How many films seem to say that true justice comes outside of due process, administered by a vigilante? How many films seem to say that it’s ok for the good guy to kill a bad guy? How many films seem to say that finding your one true love is the answer to all problems? How do contemporary films represent each race? How do American films depict other parts of the world, like the Middle East or Russia? Do films depict people of all races, genders, and sexual orientations stereotypically, or as more realistic individuals? Why do villains always seem to look...well, villainous and not like us (or physically scarred in some way)?

Hopefully, we’ll all come out of this course better equipped to ask these kinds of questions to every film we watch.

Supplemental Reading / Viewing



The closing sequence from Birth of a Nation. This is one of the most famous sequences in film history, so no discussion of Birth of a Nation is complete without it. But it needs a warning, as this sequence contains racist imagery. This sequence involves the Klan riding on horseback to save a White family, who is pinned inside a house under siege from Black soldiers (played by white actors wearing blackface), as well as to save the Klan leader's fiance from a forced marriage to a mixed-race politician (again, played by an actor in blackface).

Although it's not in this YouTube clip, the original music chosen to accompany this sequence was Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” giving the sequence an elevated sense of drama and grandeur. The Klan are depicted as heroic, divinely appointed soldiers. Countless filmmakers have referenced this famous sequence. If you've heard Ride of the Valkyries used in film or television, in everything from tv commercials to Looney Toons to Blazing Saddles and Apocalypse Now, it's a direct or indirect reference to this sequence. Spike Lee used this sequence incredibly powerfully, and horrifically, in BlacKkKlansman.

How a Wagner Opera Defined the Sound of Hollywood Blockbusters by The New Yorker, a short exploring how Ride of the Valkyries has been used in various films and commercials after Birth of a Nation, and how its meaning has changed over time.

Next Up

We'll look at the rise of Hollywood and enjoy one of the greatest artists of the silent era, with Charlie Chaplin's City Lights.

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