‘The Birth of a Nation’ and Cinematic Controversy: D.W. Griffith and Nate Parker’s Notorious Films

For all its technical prowess, the 1916 'The Birth of a Nation' is best remembered for its startlingly overt racism. What will the 2016 film's legacy be?

Over the last two weeks, Nate Parker’s Nat Turner film, The Birth of a Nation has, as promised, provoked debate about empathy and morality, but not for the reasons Parker intended. In an August 12 interview with Deadline, Parker openly discussed his history with sexual assault — in college, Parker and his then-roommate (and now writing partner) Jean McGianni Celestin were accused of raping a fellow student. When the young woman pressed charges, Parker was acquitted, while Celestin was convicted of sexual assault (his conviction was eventually overturned). After the Deadline interview, both the Daily Beast and Variety reported that the young women died by suicide in 2012.

Despite Parker’s attempts to get ahead of any potential controversy, news of the disturbing allegations sparked furious responses. Feminist cultural critic Roxane Gay penned an op-ed in The New York Times  claiming she can no longer support Parker nor his movie because she “cannot separate the art and the artist.”

To any film student or history buff, controversy around a film called The Birth of a Nation sounds disconcertingly familiar. This conversation parallels controversy surrounding the infamous film of the same name: director D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. Griffith’s film been called the most important movie in history. Based on novels by Thomas Dixon Jr., The Birth of a Nation follows the story of two fictional families — the Stonemans from the North, and the Camerons from the South — before, during, and after the Civil War. Over the past century, critics and scholars have hailed Griffith’s editorial vision, technical prowess, and use of large-scale production as revolutionary. In 1915, cinema was an evolving new medium and many credit Griffith for turning filmmaking into an art form.

That first The Birth of a Nation also holds a notorious and deserved reputation as the most racist movie in history. Griffith’s film is preoccupied with what he and Dixon saw as twin social evils: abolition and miscegenation. They believed in the racist notions that African-Americans were inferior, if not dangerous, and that racial “impurity” would cause the destruction of moral society. In The Birth of a Nation, African-American characters (mostly played by white actors in blackface) are depicted as primitives: they are either docile and jolly houseworkers and field slaves, or wild, sexual monsters. Black men in particular are demonized, depicted as physical and sexual threats to the safety and purity of white women. An infamous sequence in the film shows a freedman, Gus, pursuing a young (white) Flora Cameron through the forest. Flora jumps off a cliff to escape Gus and soon dies from the fall — her brother Ben Cameron avenges her death by founding the Klu Klux Klan, who lynch Gus as “punishment” for desiring a white woman. Towards the end of the film, the KKK rises to “save the day” by restoring white patriarchal order in the South.

Because of the racist caricatures and disturbing promotion of anti-black violence, the 1915 Birth of a Nation faced immediate backlash. Chapters of the NAACP (founded only six years earlier in 1909) were among the first to react: the Los Angeles chapter appealed to the city’s censorship board and city counsel on the grounds that the film was a threat to public safety because of its potential to incite mobs and lynchings. NAACP chapters around the country took up this strategy. Prominent leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois spoke out against the film, and while the NAACP generally failed to ban the film entirely, Griffith was pressured to edit out the most offensive sequences.

Controversy was good publicity for both the film and the NAACP. Griffith used the PR opportunity to campaign for the right of movies to be protected under the First Amendment as free speech. Over the course of 1915, as a result of the NAACP’s campaigning, the organization doubled in size. Its campaigns against the movie would find more success in the 1920s and 30s when the NAACP placed pressure on public officials to ban the film after tying it to the revitalization of the KKK (lynching numbers did indeed spike in the years following the film’s release).

Eventually the ACLU began to take issue with the NAACP’s support of censorship, and the NAACP’s members themselves grew increasingly divided in their support of the tactic. Fortunately for the NAACP, by the 1940s and ’50s, the popularity of The Birth of a Nation had waned considerably; protest and censorship were no longer necessary (and in some sense, those protests and the activism they spawned had done their job in changing norms). Over the past 60 years, the film has become a little-known relic that is typically only screened in college classes and at film societies for educational purposes.

Yet Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation still raises provocative questions. What is the relationship between style and substance, between technical innovation and creative content? What do fictionalized stories of the past mean about the contemporary culture in which they are created? Who gets to tell these stories and why, and who lets them? How do audience responses to a movie shape its historical and critical reception? What kinds of media advocacy make an impact on the industry? And how can activism change a film’s place in history and the larger cultural conversation?

It speaks volumes that we can ask the very same questions of Nate Parker’s new film, which has also been hailed as a groundbreaking artistic achievement. Parker’s movie, which he directed, produced, wrote, and stars in, made headlines when Fox Searchlight closed a $17.5 million deal to acquire its rights. The Birth of a Nation received rave reviews after its Sundance premiere: Variety film critic Justin Chang wrote that it will “provoke a serious debate about the necessity and limitations of empathy, the morality of retaliatory violence, and the ongoing black struggle for justice and equality in this country.” Parker has affirmed that his film’s title is a purposeful response to Griffith’s. In a January interview with Filmmaker Magazine, he said, “I’ve reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change.”

Parker may try to reclaim and repurpose The Birth of a Nation, but his film is now overshadowed by his alleged participation in a sexual assault. The ironic echoes of the original controversy are thick, given that his alleged victim is white, and that students of color felt racism rendered his trial unfair. In the last few weeks, some have rushed to defend Parker while others have pledged never to support his work again. This complex conversation reveals how deeply race, history, power, gender and sexual assault are entangled. Intersectional feminists, especially women of color, have already altered the way we discuss these issues. Painfully, we’re unraveling the threads of historical injustice that play into this controversy.

What kind of healing and systemic change can come from this? Melvyn Stokes writes in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation: A History of the Most Controversial Picture of All Time that the film “stands as a monument to once-dominant cultural attitudes over race.” We can look back at the history of The Birth of a Nation and see its legacy of racist violence; we can simultaneously see in this history the rise of the NAACP, one of the most powerful civil rights organizations of the 20th century.

Griffith’s film presented an opportunity for an activist organization to build its mobilizing strategies. What will the legacy of Parker’s film be? Will it come to stand as a testament to still-dominant attitudes about sexual assault? Like the 1915 movie, controversy around Parker’s film has sparked a renewed cultural conversation — this time about the value of art produced by alleged abusers. It is too early to say if controversy will be as good for Parker’s ticket sales as it was for Griffith (though it seems to have already tarnished Parker’s reputation considerably). But if today’s feminist and anti sexual violence advocates continue to discuss, debate, decline to support, and protest films created by alleged perpetrators (including Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, and Johnny Depp), cultural conversations about abuse and rape in Hollywood may finally shift from protecting the auteur to exploring what a society free from sexual violence could look like. The original Birth of a Nation controversy as well as these recent outcries show us that it can take decades of activism for new cultural norms to set in, even among supposedly enlightened people — but if protests persist, advocates may eventually be heard.