Black History Month Film Fest: The Legacy of The Birth of a Nation

Before Nate Parker electrified Sundance audiences with his film The Birth of a Nation, an original story about Nat Turner leading a slave revolt in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831, there was a very different, but no less revolutionary film by the same name. Subtitled The Clansman after the novel it is based upon, this Birth of a Nation is a twisted take on historical events of the United States post slavery. Claiming to be historical fact, but more an absurd revisionist take, it painted a picture of freed blacks as monsters and savages, overtly and covertly influencing film in a number of polarizing ways.

This led to a number of independent films that aimed to right the wrongs and injustices of Birth of a Nation. One of the most prominent was Within Our Gates, written and directed by Oscar Micheaux, arguably the most prominent African-American filmmaker of the first half of the 20th century. Within Our Gates attempts to change the narrative created by Birth of a Nation, presenting a more fair, balanced and truthful side of race relations in the US. Here’s a look at how both films mirror each other in history and their legacy.

The Birth of a Nation

Published in 1905, the original Birth of a Nation film is based on a the novel, The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, by Thomas Dixon, Jr. Dixon advocated against slavery, but was a staunch segregationist. Taking creative license, he brought his views to life by romanticizing the American Antebellum South. In the novel, the Civil War and following Reconstruction era breaks apart families and friendships before uniting them against a common foe: freed blacks. The story features of a number startling elements, including a psychopathic mulatto as the main villain, blacks bossing around whites while eating fried chicken, lynching, the Ku Klux Klan as anti-heroes and blacks attempting to rape white women, committing the ultimate sin of mixing the races.

The novel would be made into a feature film by David Llewelyn Wark Griffith, otherwise known as D.W. Griffith. A struggling playwright turned actor turned ambitious director and the “Inventor of Hollywood.” Believing these myths of Reconstruction to be facts, Griffith felt it was his duty to make sure these truths were self-evident and that all men were not created equal. In order to bring the novel to life, Griffith applied a number of then-revolutionary film techniques. He consulted with real soldiers from West Point on how to recreate battle scenes, used real uniforms from the Civil War, which were still available at the time, and brought undeniable accuracy to historical events such as Lincoln’s assassination. In addition, he pioneered the use of an original movie score, night photography, panoramic camera shots and numerous other techniques that brought filmmaking out of the Stone Age, turning it into more than just a play on film.

One of the major issues with Birth of a Nation is how good it is. While definitely a work of repugnant propaganda, the film offers a rich plot brought to life through profoundly human moments, thrilling action sequences and deft camera work. Oh! And we can’t forget an audience, that, not too far removed from the events of the Reconstruction, but just uneducated enough to believe any facts presented to them. Griffith didn’t just teach them twisted facts about race. He made his audience feel it, which is the dark legacy of the film.

Within Our Gates

When Birth of a Nation was released, there were numerous protests and people who spoke out against the film. While there was plenty of outrage in the streets and in the papers, the greatest protests may have been on the silver screen. A number of independent black filmmakers chose to fight art with art. Most notable of these emerging directors and activists was Oscar Micheaux. After creating his first feature-length film, The Homesteader in 1919, Micheaux set his sights on creating a film that captured the widespread instability of the US following World War I. While Micheaux never openly admitted that Within Our Gates was response to Birth of a Nation, the movies follow a very similar thematic storyline.

Within Our Gates tells the story of a Sylvia Landry, a woman of mixed heritage who, after World War I, journeys from the deep South to the Great North in an effort to raise money for a school for poor black children. The film adopts many of the same story elements as Birth of a Nation, but turns them on their head, showing them from a more honest point of view, namely a lynching and a white man attempting to rape a black woman. Instead of a psychopathic mulatto, we have a philanthropic one. Overall, the film presents an incendiary view of white supremacy.

Controversy

While both films faced backlash due to their provocative content, each had its own unique challenges and triumphs. Birth of a Nation faced backlash for its questionable depiction of African-Americans. Founded just a few short years before in 1909, the NAACP led its inaugural protest on Hollywood against the film. Branches around the country participated in protests and marches, and articles were written to help educate the public on the historical truth of the Reconstruction Era in American History instead of the historical fiction that the movie depicted. Unfortunately, the NAACP’s efforts only amounted to free publicity for the film, increasing interest and helping it become a blockbuster.

Riots broke out in a number of major America cities, including Boston and Philadelphia. The film inspired gangs of whites to beat up blacks in their cities, with at least one murder reported. Finally, the film revitalized the Ku Klux Klan. The hate group had all but disappeared at this point, but now, presented as a hero of the white man, the propaganda film was the best recruiting tool the Klan ever had.

While Birth of a Nation flourished in controversy, much like Donald Trump, Within Our Gates floundered. The film faced an uphill battle from the start. Crafted in the shadow of Birth of a Nation, along with the Chicago race riot of 1919, the film was initially banned by the Chicago Film Board censors due to the graphic rape and lynching scenes. It wasn’t until politicians, prominent blacks and the press convinced censors that the movie discussed important issues that needed to be addressed at the time. Still, white theater owners were reticent to show the film, afraid that black audiences would revolt.

It was as if Birth of a Nation cast the first stone, and, when Within Our Gates wanted to defend itself, people were more dedicated to protecting the villain than the victim. It would be easy to say that racism alone played a part in this reasoning, which there is no doubt that it does. However, there is also the fact that Within Our Gates was an independent film with fewer resources. Birth of a Nation had the backing of the early movie studio system, as infantile as it was at the time. To compare the films would be like putting up a Hollywood tent pole summer blockbuster up against a regional art house film. But while Birth of a Nation lives on for being a big bombastic film, Within Our Gates is remembered more for being an amazing film from an emerging storyteller.

Birth of a Legacy

In 2016, another independent film by an emerging African-American filmmaker is posed to revolutionize Hollywood and the cinematic portrayal of blacks. Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is a thematic successor to both films. All films owe a little bit to the original Birth of a Nation and it’s technical innovations, however, Parker’s film also takes inspiration from Griffith’s subject matter, subverting the idea of blacks gaining power and overtaking whites, much like Within Our Gates.  Of course, the full impact of Parker’s film has yet to be seen. We’ll have to wait until October to get the full impact of Parker’s ambitious project. However, scoring $17.5 million from Fox Searchlight, the highest payday for an independent film at Sundance, along with an Oscar-friendly release date, means that there’s a good chance that this The Birth of a Nation will, a 100 years later, finally be the response heard by audiences everywhere that Micheaux originally envisioned.