Monday, January 17, 2011

'Birth of a Nation' (1915) on MLK Day

New Hampshire was the last state in the union to make MLK day an official holiday, so perhaps it's fitting that we'll be screening 'Birth of a Nation' at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, N.H. to mark this year's observance.

Seen today, nearly 100 years after its release, the picture seems to be from another planet. What else can you say about a film in which black characters are portrayed by white actors in blackface, and which climaxes with hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan riding to the rescue?

All this, however, is contained in the framework of cinematic story-telling that, however primitive, remains effective and compelling. The technique is impressive, although the content is at times bizarre.

But it's a film worth seeing, and with live music and on the big screen, especially, and with a little context, too. I've been looking at it recently to prepare music, and in doing so I've noticed many instances where director Griffith managed to get his cast to put in a lot of detail that music can actually help bring out.

There's a scene in a hospital where a security guard and Lillian Gish exchange glances, and I didn't notice it at first, but it's quite special, and I hope the music can help clarify and draw attention to some of those moments.

As for context, I think it's important for a modern audience to try to appreciate the impact this film had when it was first released. Imagine being able to be present in Ford's theater and witness Lincoln's assassination! Imagine being in the room at Lee's surrender to General Grant. Imagine standing on the battlefields with cannons and gunfire and death all around! And the fact that the Civil War was within living memory for many at the time would only heighten the impact.

And then there's the matter of Griffith's canvas. For a half-dozen years, he'd experimented with how to tell a dramatic story with a movie camera, gradually trying out ideas such as close-ups, long shots, irises, cutting back and forth, camera placement, bringing the action outdoors (instead of on a stage or in a studio), and so on. 'Birth of a Nation' is the film in which he put it all together and attempted to use all the things he'd learned to tell a story on a massive scale, both in terms of the narrative and the scenery. It was an amazing "all or nothing" gamble, and knowledge of this helps recapture some of the excitement that the film must have generated when it was first screened.

It's still there, if you look for it and are open to receiving it.

We've gotten above-average press for this one, so let's hope there might be a good house. We were planning to do a panel discussion but with the film itself running close to three hours with no intermission, that didn't seem really wise.

So here's the press release. Hope to see you there!

* * *

‘Birth of a Nation’: Silent film masterpiece or racist artifact?

Landmark movie to be screened with live music on MLK Day, Jan. 17, in Manchester, N.H.

MANCHESTER, N.H.—What if a movie was acclaimed as a masterpiece, but portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroes? What if a movie aimed to show the realities of life during the Civil War, and yet used white actors playing roles in blackface? What does it say if a movie was clearly racist, depicting blacks as an inferior sub-species to whites, but was still a box office smash?

Those are among the questions posed by ‘The Birth of a Nation’ (1915), the ground-breaking epic film from director D.W. Griffith, which continues to inspire controversy nearly 100 years after its initial release.

In honor of Martin Luther King Day this year, a restored print of the film will be screened with live music at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, N.H. The screening, part of the Palace Theatre’s silent film series, will take place on Monday, Jan. 17 at 7 p.m. General admission tickets are $8 per person.

Organizers of the Palace Theatre’s film series specifically chose Martin Luther King Day to screen ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ long regarded as a masterpiece of early cinema but tarnished by racism and prejudice.

“Although ‘The Birth of a Nation’ has been reviled for its blatant and pervasive racism, it was a huge hit in its day and was accepted as one of the landmarks of early cinema,” said New Hampshire silent film musician Jeff Rapsis, who will perform a live score for the film.

“Screening this compromised classic on Martin Luther King Day is a chance for today’s audiences to appreciate how far we’ve come, and to also ponder how many of the prejudices on display in this film that we may still harbor, even unconsciously,” Rapsis said.

As the first-ever Hollywood “blockbuster,” ‘The Birth of a Nation’ thrilled audiences with its large-scale wartime action sequences, its recreation of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and spectacular photography by cameraman G.W. Bitzer.

At the same time, the movie was regarded as monumentally insensitive to issues of race, depicting blacks as a sub-race inferior to whites and portraying Ku Klux Klan members as heroes. Conceived by Griffith, a native Southerner, as a saga of two families caught up in the Civil War and its aftermath, many regarded the film as a prolonged statement of cinematic bigotry.

Seen today, the film abounds with offensive racial comments and imagery both overt and implied. To complicate matters for contemporary audiences, Griffith had all leading roles of black characters played by white actors in blackface; black actors were kept in the background or used only for crowd scenes, which lends the film a surreal quality to modern viewers.

Despite the racism, the film’s innovative and powerful story-telling techniques, as well as its massive scale, opened Hollywood’s eyes to cinema’s full potential, exerting a powerful influence on generations of filmmakers to come.

The film’s pervasive influence extended beyond theaters, at times in unfortunate ways. As an unintended consequence, ’The Birth of a Nation’ inspired a revival of the then-dormant Klan, which flourished anew in the south thorough the 1920s, making extensive use of Griffith’s film for propaganda purposes.

The controversy continues today, with ‘Birth of a Nation’ inspiring passions nearly a century after its release. Has enough time passed for today’s audiences to regard this landmark film as an artifact of its time, or an indication of enduring prejudice? This Martin Luther King’s Day, decide for yourself how far we’ve come with a screening of a restored print of this tarnished American classic the way it was intended to be seen: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

The film stars Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry Walthall, and dozens of other silent-era performers. Gish, who died in 1993 at age 99, continued to act in films as late as 1987, when she appeared in ‘The Whales of August.’ Her later work includes an appearance on the TV series ‘The Love Boat’ in 1981.

All movies in the Palace Theatre’s silent film series were popular when first released, but are rarely screened today in a way that allows them to be seen at their best. They were not made to be shown on television; to revive them, organizers aim to show the films at the Palace as they were intended—in top quality restored prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with a live audience.

Screenings in the Palace Theatre’s silent series take place on Mondays at 7 p.m. ‘The Birth of a Nation’ will be shown on Martin Luther King Day, Monday, Jan. 17, at 7 p.m. the Palace Theatre, 80 Hanover St., Manchester, N.H. Admission is $8 per person, general admission seating. Tickets available at the door or in advance by calling the Palace Theatre box office, (603) 668-5588 or online at

The Palace Theatre’s silent film series is sponsored by HippoPress and Looser Than Loose Vintage Entertainment of Manchester.


“...the film represents how racist a white American could be in 1915 without realizing he was racist at all. That is worth knowing. Blacks already knew that, had known it for a long time, witnessed it painfully again every day, but "The Birth of a Nation" demonstrated it in clear view, and the importance of the film includes the clarity of its demonstration. That it is a mirror of its time is, sadly, one of its values.”
—Roger Ebert, 2003, The Chicago Sun-Times

“If one can put the racial overtones aside, this is quite probably the most accurate celluloid representation of Civil War times to exist. It was made only 50 years after the Civil War ended, when many people who had actually been through the war were still alive to give first hand accounts.”
—Robert K. Klepper, ‘Silent Films,’ (1999)

“More than a hugely successful spectacle, it was a masterpiece—using Griffith’s trademark cinematic techniques and combining emotional intensity and epic sweep—but it was a deeply tainted one. Its racism—consciously intended by the filmmaker or not—makes parts of ‘Birth’ extremely difficult to watch today.”
—Peter Kobel, ‘Silent Movies,’ (2007)


  1. Jeff, just checked out 'birth' from the library. beautiful film, minus the racism. the music in the film is fantastic but i'm at a loss to know what it is. very modernistic, and dissonant, like bartok or prokofiev. would you be able to email me what some of the music is? thanks very much.

  2. Hi Ruth,

    Thanks for commenting and glad you took time to check out 'Birth of a Nation.' I'll send you a reply by e-mail, as you requested, but I'm posting it online as well in case other folks are interested.

    Because 'Birth of a Nation' was made before 1923, it is in the public domain, and therefore available for anyone to release commercially without any copyright restrictions. Due to this, many editions have been cranked out over the years by producers hoping to capitalize on the film's notoriety. Some of these have been good, others been just plain awful: really bad or incomplete prints with random music added, without regard to the film's pacing or emotional line, which at times can make nonsense of Griffith's work. (And then people come away thinking of silent films as hopelessly primitive and unsophisticated.)

    Fortunately, it sounds like you saw a reissue where some care was taken to put some effective music to help bring the film to life. I don't know what the music might have been but producers have sometimes used 20th century "modern" music because few people seem to care about any rights or usage issues. For example, Shostakovich's 5th Symphony (1937) was used in a lot of low-budget horror films in the 1950s because the Soviets somehow didn't offer copyright protection to their artists, I think.

    When we screened 'Birth of a Nation' last January, the live music was by me and I went for period ambiance. A lot of original melodies and chord sequences, but also some scraps of traditional tunes from Stephen Foster and others thrown in. Also, it's traditional for the activities of the Klan to be accompanied by Wagner's 'Ride of the Valkyries' music, so I used that as well. It's a great film for music because, as you know, it has such sweep and drama, and music can really help amplify the build-up to the big moments, and help audiences get what's happening more clearly.

    It's important to note that D.W. Griffith created the film to be shown on a big screen to a live audience and with live music (as opposed to a TV screen in someone's home with recorded music), and so it's worth seeking out a screening with these elements present so that the film has a chance at making its full impact. I'm glad the film is available so easily for home viewing and study, even if some of the versions are substandard. But nothing can substitute for a live screening, which is one reason I continue to be excited about doing them in our area.

    Thanks again for writing and hope to hear from you again soon!

    Jeff R.