This year marks the 100th anniversary of D. W. Griffith’s infamous and influential film The Birth of a Nation. This anniversary is more significant than simply marking how far we have come since a time when joining the Ku Klux Klan could be depicted in the mainstream media as the way to heal our national wounds.
The Birth of a Nation centennial, as coincidentally observed by the nationwide release of Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, commemorates our enduring national desire to see our history performed and embodied.
Since its premiere, The Birth of a Nation has been heralded as a landmark in film. For decades, critics and historians sidestepped its racist content to focus on the film’s pioneering techniques of editing and camera work, especially cross-cutting, panning/tracking shots, and close-ups.
Despite this, the film was controversial from the start. The NAACP was stalwart in protesting it, particularly in New York during its nearly year-long run in the city. Many objected to its depiction of Southern whites as double victims—first of their Northern aggressors and then of the supposedly rapacious African American survivors of slavery. Yet, the film had its defenders.
President Woodrow Wilson was said to comment: "It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
One immediate result of the film’s ardent justification of white supremacy was the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan, which had been largely dormant since the end of the 19th century.
Griffith was a Southerner, as was Thomas Dixon Jr., the author of 1905 novel and play The Clansman from which The Birth of a Nation was adapted. Both men believed that Northern versions of the Civil War and Reconstruction did not acknowledge what the white South had endured. They yearned to explain and defend white supremacy.
Griffith used his talent as a filmmaker and his actors’ virtuosity to move audience sympathies toward the fictional white protagonists. To use the power of performance to deceitful historical ends, the movie integrated the epic, including battle scenes of the Civil War, with the intimate, depicted in the anguish and horror expressed by Elsie, played by Lillian Gish, when she is almost forced to marry an African American politician. Griffith’s skill was in making his lies seem like reasonable assertions.
One hundred years later, Selma offers its audiences a very different approach and argument. The events the movie dramatizes are documented historical occurrences—not fictions invented to make the film’s conclusions seem inevitable. DuVernay wanted to portray the civil rights movement not as the achievement of a single hero (Martin Luther King, Jr.) or a white leader (President Lyndon B. Johnson), but as the result of collective action on the part of many. Her approach allows audiences to put themselves in the circumstances of the marchers, most of whom were ordinary people, and find connections to a historical moment not their own.
On NPR's Fresh Air, DuVernay told host Terry Gross, “What we were trying to do with this whole film is to just elevate it from a page in your history book and really just get it into your body—into your DNA.”
Selma succeeds where The Birth of a Nation fails, however, and not just because the older film’s virulent racism advocated for the violence of domestic terrorism and justified it as a necessary national action. Selma triumphs because it depicts people working across racial lines for justice. Despite complaints that President Johnson is depicted unfairly, the film offers us the people behind the history—their flaws, strengths, and triumphs. We see the president reaffirm his commitment to equal rights in an eloquent speech to Congress, concluding with "We shall overcome," knowing that he would succeed in getting that bill passed.
As historian Peniel Joseph observed, Selma offers its audiences “the larger truth that the civil rights movement’s heroic period reflected our collective strengths and weaknesses as a nation, something Americans are loathe to recognize, let alone acknowledge.”
The Birth of a Nation was the first film to be shown at the White House, Selma the most recent.
A hundred years after the release of Birth of Nation, we are still using performance as way to debate and understand race.
Seeing history play out before us, performed by living people, renders it immediate and alive. Taken together, the two films demonstrate how we lay claim to history by representing it and by telling each other stories derived from it.
Selma is the unintended commemoration and correction of The Birth of A Nation.
The 1915 film justified domestic terrorism and vigilantism to defend the racial status quo. In 2015, DuVernay and her colleagues have gifted their audiences with a performance of history that bends justice toward us, still a bit out of reach, but almost close enough to touch.