1915 February 8

“Birth of a Nation” Opens: A Century of Controversy Follows


Birth of a Nation, one of the greatest and most controversial films in the history of the cinema, had its premier on this day. The film has always been controversial because it presents the history of the American south in the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era as a racist story of how the south was “saved” from chaos a the hands of newly-freed African-Americans by the Ku Klux Klan. The film is also famous and influential in cinema history for using new cinematic techniques such as close-ups to tell and dramatic story.

The film was met with immediate protests from the NAACP and other African-American leaders because of its racist perspective. Protests greeted its premier in New York City on March 3, 1915. In the 1920s, the NAACP was able to have the film banned in several cities. On December 8, 1922, for example, Birth of a Nation was denied a permit to be shown in New York City. The ACLU protested such bans on all of these occasions.

President Woodrow Wilson was treated to a private showing of Birth of a Nation in the White House on February 18, 1915. It was the first time he had ever seen a movie. The racist perspective of Birth of a Nation on race and Reconstruction was similar to Wilson’s personal view, as expressed in his 1902 five-volume History of the American People.

Watch the film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tkmLs-2UiNY

Read: Melvyn Stokes, The Birth of a Nation: A History of The Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time (2007)

Learn more about African American history: Henry Louis Gates, Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513-2008 (2011)

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