I have received a few questions lately about the unfavorable reports of D. W. Griffith’s epic 1915 film about the Civil War and Reconstruction, The Birth of a Nation. So often, modern scholars suggest that this film stood for the broad consensus at the time of its premiere. Granted, a fair number of Americans North and South saw this film as accurate history – that the well worn Lost Cause narrative and the travails of Reconstruction rang true in this film adaptation of Thomas Dixon’ s novels, The Leopard’s Spots and The Clansman.
But despite the film’s popularity and a certain level of acceptance for the film’s analytical bent, others did not take so warmly to Grifith’s “sensational photoplay” at all…especially Union veterans. The clip above is one of the film’s most notorious – it depicts a legislative session in the South Carolina statehouse during the Reconstruction period. Here we witness what some would claim was the absurdity of Black legislators. The racist stereotypes are all there – black lawmakers, shoeless, intoxicated, eating chicken and leering at white women. The hall erupts in near riotous fervor at the passing of a bill allowing interracial marriage – what white South Carolinians feared most.
To underscore reactions by those who had fought for, and thus celebrated Union and Emancipation, I have included a report from the magazine, The Moving Picture World – dated August, 1915.
A state-wide fight on “The Birth of a Nation” is urged by Col. J. M. Snyder, of Canton, 111., who is department commander of the Grand Army of the Republic In Illinois. Three reasons are offered for Its suppression, one of which is that it is not fair to the Union soldiers.
A copy of a resolution passed by a Chicago post has been sent to every post in Illinois with a request from the state commander that a similar resolution be adopted. The resolution is as follows:
“The George H. Thomas Post, No. 5, Department of Illinois. G. A. R., protests against the exhibition called ‘The Birth of a Nation.’
“First. Because It contains slanderous representations as to the soldiers who fought to preserve the Union, and caricatures the history of the war.
“Second. It represents the infamous Ku Klux Klun as a society of patriotic and chivalrous men.
“Third. Its whole Influence Is to excite and Intensify hatred of the negro race and to perpetuate sectional bitterness.”
The GAR were hardly impressed by this film, which is not hard to imagine.