100 years ago today, D.W. Griffith showed his racist epic film “Birth of a Nation” at a private White House screening for President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson called it “history written with lightning,” and said lightning strike sparked the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, which in its late teens and early twenties form became a gigantic nationwide organization of conservative white men marching and organizing against not only African-Americans but all sorts of perceived threats ranging from women with short hair and the theory of evolution to Jews and socialism. When it declined in the late 20s, it wasn’t because of federal oppression or a rejection of the KKK’s ideas. Rather, it was because of widespread corruption in the organization’s leadership, including the the Grand Dragon of the Indiana Klan’s trial for the brutal rape and murder of a teacher named Madge Oberholtzer on a train.
I was first exposed to Birth of a Nation as a college student. While I did watch it for a class my senior year, it was my sophomore year that I actually first saw it. I worked for the AV department in college and this was long enough ago that films in class were being shown reel to reel (the switch to VHS capability in classrooms was taking place while I was in college). One quarter I had the job of running the previews of the 100-level intro to film course for the professor. Saw a bunch of weird stuff–Un Chien Andalou, The Gold Rush, and Notorious are three I distinctly remember. But none shocked me like Birth of a Nation, as I had never heard of the thing. I never forgot the shock of what I was seeing.
And if you haven’t seen Birth of a Nation, it really is must viewing, both in spite of and because of its racism. As a film, it’s great. As social commentary, it’s repulsive.