The Birth of a Nation chronicles the lives of D.W. Griffith, director of the 1915 film for which the book is titled, and William Monroe Trotter, a black civil rights leader who fought to have the film banned from theaters in Boston and the United States.
Lehr gives a brief backdrop of both men’s upbringings: Griffith the son of a Civil War veteran who fought for the South; Trotter also the son of Civil War veteran, but for the North, and who spearheaded equal pay for his all-black Union regiment.
The meat of book follows Griffith as he goes from failed stage actor to pioneer in directing “moving pictures,” and Trotter as he goes from Harvard-educated businessman to a leader in the civil rights movement. The stories of the two collide with the production and release of The Birth of a Nation.
I haven’t seen the film, nor do I have any desire to, but the impact it left on the technical aspect of directing films as we know it today can’t be understated. Unfortunately, nor can the blatant racism it promoted. Lehr does an admirable job of explaining both, noting that Griffith, with his use of quick cuts of multiple cameras, close-up shots and musical scores laid the foundation for what we expect from a movie. No one at the time had seen anything like it. That the content is so overtly racist (the film is at least partially credited with the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan) is a moral tragedy.
The release of the film spurred a heated battle, with groups around the country fighting to ban it from theaters on the basis of its portrayal of black Americans. No one fought more fiercely than Trotter. Through lawsuits, lobbying both Boston and Massachusetts legislature, and organized protests, Trotter led the charge against Griffith and his work. The biggest obstacle facing him, other than the inherent prejudice of those Trotter needed to help stop the film, was that Griffith claimed protection due to his First Amendment right to free speech. Trotter, a newspaper owner himself, was extremely wary of abridging that right. Instead he hoped to shutter the film based on its morality, or lack thereof, when depicting black characters.
In a long and valiant fight Trotter, and the majority of the black population of Boston, got the state legislature to appoint three officials the power to stop a film they deemed immoral. What seemed to be a victory turned to defear when the three officials met and, after a short deliberation, deemed The Birth of a Nation fit for showing. The film played for months in Boston and around the country, grossing an estimated $60 million in 1915.
I read this book for a few reasons: first, as someone who works in television I wanted to know the history of the movie that essentially wrote the blueprint for how modern films are made. Second, as a journalism major I found the debate surrounding the film fascinating. It serves as a perfect case study for free speech versus what today we call “hate speech.” Where does Griffith’s right to produce racist content lose out to the harm it caused to black Americans? What qualifies as harmful speech, presenting a “clear and present danger” as it would later be labeled, and what is protected served as the focal point of the long debate in 1915. That debate still rages today.
This leads me to the third reason: a theme of the book, and therefore a theme of the reality of this conflict, is the use of a new medium to push a racist agenda. The sheer amazement and visceral reaction to a motion picture in 1915 played an undeniable role in The Birth of a Nation’s success at the box office and in court. Griffith’s film simply made too much money and, in a strategic marketing ploy, had the tacit support of judges, lawmakers and even President Woodrow Wilson. The use of a new medium to enrapture the populace but also serve as a prejudiced tool reminded me, in some ways, of social media today. Something can spread across the country in an instant, and in the time it takes for anyone to recognize it as toxic it’s too late. Similarly to movies in 1915, Twitter today is new and wide-reaching. Similarly to the racism in The Birth of a Nation, hateful and racist attacks can be posted and shared far and wide. And, just as in 1915, bigoted language pushes the limits of what the First Amendment protects. This new, instant and widespread medium arrived quickly, and the world still doesn’t quite know how to handle it just yet.
I don’t know who to credit this quote to, but I heard it from a professor: “History doesn’t repeat; it rhymes.” When I finished this book I felt disheartened. Disheartened because the fight of black Americans to be seen as equal, to have their rights as humans recognized, to attempt to work within the legal system to change an injustice and being swatted down sounded too familiar. Many of the reasons given to keep The Birth of a Nation in theaters and to write off its racism sounded too familiar. Responses to a Trotter-led protest outside the Tremont Theatre in April 1915 could be copied verbatim by critics of the Black Lives Matter movement and no one would know the difference. Sometimes history’s song is a sad one.
But we need to know the words.
Thank you for reading,