D.W. Griffith and the Birth of Film History

Maggie Hennefeld


When we think of early film history, what images come to mind? Perhaps in the wake of Martin Scorsese’s homage to Georges Méliès in Hugo, a montage of hand-tinted fantasy sequences involving moon travel or a scientist’s head exploding intermingle with our own spectacular experiences of IMAX screen enlargements and new simulations of 3-D dimensionality.


But when did filmmaking shift from point A to point B: from the spectacle of trick representation  to the immersive art of narrative storytelling? The metaphor of “birth” -- the birth of cinema as a narrative art -- has often been located at a dubious conjunction with D.W. Griffith’s infamous adaptation of the The Clansman and The Leopard’s Spots (novels by Thomas Dixon), eponymously titled The Birth of a Nation (1915). Birth depicts a passage in American history that romanticizes plantation life on the cusp of the Civil War through Lincoln’s assassination and Reconstruction. No doubt influenced by Griffith’s own Civil War biography (his father “Roaring” Jake Griffith was a Confederate Army colonel), the film focuses on the stories of two white families: the Northern pro-Union Stonemans and the Southern pro-Confederacy Camerons. In the end, the Stonemans’ integrationist optimism is condemned, and the Camerons are vindicated for the racial retribution that they have suffered in the wake of civil state violence only by the emergence and empowerment of the Ku Klux Klan.



Although aesthetically outdated and ideologically abhorrent to a 2013 viewer (and the latter to many 1915 viewers), as anyone who has ever taken an introduction to film studies course would tell you, Birth of a Nation literally interweaves the romance of racial bigotry into its innovative organization of a narrative film syntax. Syntax, which refers to the rules or codes for making meaning emerge out of an otherwise disjunctive arrangement of linguistic components, somehow seems more opaque in the context of moving images than it does in prose and literature. For example, in the sentence, “D.W. Griffith made over 400 films throughout his 25-year long career,” the discontinuous interweaving between different parts of speech (proper noun, verb, adverb, adjective, noun, etc.) appears legible to us because we are accustomed to deciphering their arrangement in the English language.


In filmmaking, this is the case as well. However, we are inadequately trained and therefore have fewer tools for parsing the disjunctive arrangement of shots and looks that absorb us psychologically in a given film’s narrative universe. For example, in a climactic sequence from Birth of a Nation, the Klansmen rush to the rescue to save protagonist Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) and her cohort who are trapped in a cabin besieged by black militia. Although the film cuts frequently between different times and spaces—the cabin and the landscape traversed by the KKK en route to the rescue—we only observe the continuities strung along by the experience of suspense, and not the discontinuities between these different places and moments (many of which construct incompatible spectator positions through different styles of visual framing).

The problem with the metaphor of “birth” is that it elides the broader struggles of film history, just as Birth of a Nation whitewashes traumatic histories of vigilante justice and institutionalized slavery of African-Americans well after the Civil War.


Griffith had directed more than 400 films (mostly shorts and single-reel works) during the seven years of his filmmaking career before he made Birth of a Nation. From 1908-1913, during his prolific era at the Biograph Company, Griffith’s experimentations with narrative film syntax emerged through an ideologically illegible range of film stories and devices. Working in every genre imaginable—including slapstick comedy (Eradicating Aunty), trick films (Deceived Slumming Party), melodrama (An Unseen Enemy), the Western (The Red Man and the Child), historical biography (Abraham Lincoln), prurient “flicker” curiosities, high literary adaptation (Edgar Allen Poe), African jungle films (The Zulu’s Heart), urban crime drama (The Song of the Shirt), populist allegories (A Corner in Wheat), and cross-dressing themed war episodes (The House with Closed Shutters)—Griffith’s formal diversity has received disturbingly slight attention given his hyper-visibility in film history. While sexual and racial stereotyping indeed recurs across Griffith’s moral melodramas and anarchic slapstick films alike, to say that film storytelling was “birthed” from a specific episode in racial misrepresentation is willfully to turn a blind eye to the broader contradictions of early film history.


The financial success and cultural significance of Birth of a Nation upon its release resulted at least as much from its political controversy as from its favorable reception. While the Klan appropriated the film for recruitment purposes, the NAACP staged protests against Birth at numerous premiers across the country and published widely debunking the film’s numerous historical and ideological inaccuracies. Riots broke out in Chicago, Denver, St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Kansas City, provoking primarily white-on-black gang violence. Indeed, the invisibility of the film’s masterful techniques to manipulate space and time—its immersive narrative syntax—no doubt corroborated its incendiary mode of address. Race becomes hyper-visible as the manipulative construction of racial stereotypes by the film image itself recedes from visibility.



Moreover, just as Birth of a Nation rationalizes its own disjunctive arrangement of space and time in order to instrumentalize its whitewashing of the Civil War and Reconstruction, so too do we threaten to whitewash film history when we look too selectively at only its most infamous and inflammatory excerpts. The history of racial representation in narrative filmmaking is foremost a history of struggle: the history of film form as a “differential system” (which is also the theory of language) emerged between ideologically incoherent representations of gendered and racialized bodies—from Bert Williams and Bertha Regustus, to D.W. Griffith and Oscar Micheaux. We do ourselves a disservice in the present day when we pretend that the black body could only have signified one thing for film storytellers in 1915, as this limited gaze toward the past no doubt also blinds us to the range of contradictory identities that proliferate through digital platforms in the present day.


Author Bio:
Maggie Hennefeld is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine. She currently lives in Providence, R.I., studying in a Modern Culture and Media Ph.D. Program at Brown University.


Photos: Wikipedia Commons.

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