1915 February 18

President Wilson Enjoys His First Movie: “Birth of a Nation”

 

President Woodrow Wilson had never seen a motion picture until he was offered a chance to see Birth of a Nation in the White House on this day. He had known the author of the book (The Clansman) and play, Thomas Dixon, Jr., in graduate school at Johns Hopkins. The film was also the first motion picture to be shown at the White House. Directed by D. W. Griffith, Birth of a Nation is one of the most important and controversial films in the history of motion pictures. It presented the Southern view of post-Civil War Reconstruction (1865–1877), with racist stereotypes of African-Americans, played by white actors with painted faces, and also presented a heroic view of Ku Klux Klan. Birth of a Nation is famous and influential in the history of motion pictures for its bold and innovative cinematographic techniques.

President Wilson reportedly enjoyed the movie. Born in Virginia, he was sympathetic to the Southern view of Reconstruction. In his own five-volume History of the American People, written before he entered politics, Wilson embraced a similar view of Reconstruction, with a critical view of African-Americans and favorable view of the KKK.

Wilson is often quoted as having said that the movie is “Like writing history with lightening,” but there is no evidence that he actually said that. It is generally assumed that the producers of the film invented the quote to promote the film.

There have been numerous attempts to ban Birth of a Nation from the time of its initial release until the present because of its racist theme and imagery. See, for example, March 3, 1915 and December 8, 1922.

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)

Read Wilson’s history of the U.S.: Woodrow Wilson, A History of the American People, 5 vols. (1902)

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