15 August 2017

Contested history in films - "The Birth of a Nation"

British historian Suzannah Lipscomb was interested in how film makers did, or did not analyse hist­orical evidence accurately in their films. A review of David Rieff’s book In Praise of Forgetting was rightly scornful of the practicality of forgetting past atrocities, just for modern audiences’ comfort. Remembering, not forgetting, was im­por­tant in the pursuit of recog­nit­ion and restitution and, ultimately, reconciliation.

Two recent films were designed to remember histor­ical atrocities. Both were love stories set against geo­political events. Viceroy’s House by Gurinder Chadha told of the Partition that accompanied the granting of independence to India in 1947, in which a million people died and c12 million were displaced. Bitter Harvest by George Mendeluk recalled one of the least-known tragedies of recent history; the Holod­omor, the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine in which 3-9 million people died.

Both examples achieved one of the purposes of historical films: they left Dr Lipscomb with the desire to know more. But each step has taken her into murkier territory, for both films told contested histories.

For a discussion of the British Raj, Jon Wilson’s fine 2016 book India Conquered, challenged the idea that there was ever a civilising mission. Shashi Tharoor’s new books, Inglor­ious Empire in Britain and An Era of Darkness, gave an even more damning verdict. Viceroy’s House played fair with its depiction of British divide-and-rule policies on one side and growing Hindu-Muslim tensions on the other. It dodged one allegation i.e the affair between Edwina Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru. But it made another i.e that Winston Churchill was personally responsible for the catastrophically shoddy division of British India into India and Pakistan.

Bitter Harvest told an even more charged interpret­at­ion of the past. As the first English-language film, it espoused many historians’ view that the Hol­odomor was genocide by starvat­ion, a man-made famine imposed by Stalin’s collectivisation policies. Soviet and Russian histories, by contrast, consid­ered it to be a tragedy, but not man-made or intentional. This historical interpret­ation was therefore politically loaded and tied to Ukrainian national identity. This film was motivated by a desire to get this atrocity ‘the recognition that history demands’.

The film depicted Stalin as the agent of evil, imp­os­ing starvation on millions because he is frustrated by dis­obedience. What made Dr Lipscomb uneasy was that these things were almost certainly true, but the desire to tell the story in such piebald terms rendered the atrocity almost unbelievable.  Dr Lipscomb wrote the way films remembered historic events was troubling. A film can convey a convincing interpretation that cannot be rebutted or it can make even the truest of events far-fetched.

Poster for the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation
Note the fiery cross of the Ku Klux Klan, in image and text

The Birth of a Nation was an excellent 1915 American silent drama, directed by DW Griffith, with actress Lillian Gish in the lead role. The screenplay was adapted from Thomas Dixon's novel The Clansman. The film recounted the relationship of two families in the American Civil War and Reconstruction era: one pro-Union and one pro-Confederacy. 

Despite African-American rallies against racism, the film opened in April 1915 to delighted white audiences. So how can we in 2017 know how controversial the film was 102 years ago, for its port­rayal of black men as unintell­ig­ent and sexually aggres­sive towards white women? Was the film’s por­trayal of the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic force truly believed back then? Apparently yes.

Certainly Rev Thomas Dixon's 1905 book The Clansmen paid warm tribute to the Ku Klux Klan. And the director DW Griffith was also an admirer of the Klan. As Griffith said in his auto-biography and as he championed in the film: “The members of the Klan ran to the rescue of the downtrodden South after the Civil War.” The actress Lillian Gish explained “The idea was to tell the truth about the War between the States. It hasn't been told accurately in history books”.

We have to assume from contemporary documents that the film's storyline was mostly accepted as histor­ically accurate. To reinforce this view, a message from Griffith flickered on the screen as the orchestra started: "This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and Recon­struction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today."

The KKK was delighted! The film's release was cred­ited as being a factor that stimulated the second coming of the Ku Klux Klan at Stone Mountain Georgia. Along with a 1913 trial and lynching in Atlanta, this film was specifically used as a recruiting tool for the KKK. To celebrate the opening of The Birth of a Nation, a dramatic Rev William Simmons took 15 racist whites up Stone Mountain, made declarations about purity and honour, then lit a cross and re-ign­ited the KKK. “The occasion will be remembered long by the participants,” the Atlanta Constitution boomed, “KLAN IS ESTABLISHED WITH IMPRESSIVENESS.”

To ban The Birth of a Nation, blacks could not just show that the film knowingly dist­orted African American history. Boston's National Association for the Advance­ment of Coloured People and newspaper editor William Trotter argued that the film was a threat to public safety, it heightened racial tensions and could incite violence. Boston’s mayor responded by holding a public hearing where the mayor claimed he could only censor the film if it was indecent and immoral, but not if it was racist. After the film­maker agreed to cut explicitly sexual scenes, the film opened in Boston.

Ironically the film had one empowering effect against the KKK. Across the country, blacks filed petitions, appealed to legis­latures, met with mayors, picketed theatres and organised protest marches, to ban the film. Even when they failed, the film brought national att­ent­ion to the NAACP and black Americans had an opportunity at least to be heard. And three states did eventually ban the film.

Did the writers of The Birth of a Nation not realise that their presentation of the Civil War and the Ku Klux Klan was only one side of a vigorously contested history? I assume they deliberately chose to depict life after the Civil War in a way that glorified Klansmen as the "Saviours of the White South". Since the film makers wanted to attract a large white audience to cinemas across the country, it would have been financially counter-productive and ideolog­ically unsound for them to have remembered historical events more accurately. This 1915 film was therefore as politically loaded, and as tied to just one national identity, as the film Bitter Harvest later became.


bazza said...

This is a truly disturbing read. It brings to mind Churchill's quote: "History will be kind to me for I shall write it". It also leaves one wondering about any viewpoint in film, books or even on TV news. Do we ever know historical truth, are primary sources or secondary sources more important and is witting or unwitting evidence more or less reliable?
I have only ever heard of Birth of a Nation described as a great and important film.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s stupendous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


I too had only heard of Birth of a Nation as one of the greatest silent films ever made, technically and dramatically. So its impact on the viewers was likely to be very powerful. I am assuming, therefore, that white viewers would have agreed with Griffith's version of history (see below).

HISTORYNET wrote "Griffith the Southerner could recall the bitterness of Reconstruction through the tales told by his father etc. It was a time when Northern carpetbaggers descended on the prostrate South like a horde of ravenous wolves. Worse yet, they destroyed the natural order of society by giving blacks the franchise and equality with whites. The result was a period of suffering and white subjugation, until the depredations were reversed by the glorious exploits of the Ku Klux Klan".

Andrew said...

There is no doubt in the power of movies to form opinions. It is so important to note whether a film is historically accurate, based on history or fiction. I am reading a book set in Berlin before and during WWII. One of the characters is surely Lord Haw Haw, that is one his versions. I assume the war history is generally accurate. It would be a shame if it isn't.

Black men were sexually aggressive towards white women? Ahem.

Deb said...

The film J. Edgar chose the most contested era in US history so it was doomed from the start. Half the population thought Hoover was shown as ambitious, scientifically aware, patriotic, admired. The other half thought Hoover appeared paranoid, thuggish, brutal, secretive.

Hels said...


I would not assume any war history is generally accurate... the films are almost always written from one perspective, with vested military, political and financial interests in mind. If we are lucky, the films at least draw on official archival material, as well as on the taped memories of old men who had to bury their mates back in 1914 or 1939.

Lord Haw Haw is a great example... a blatant propaganda expert who was very influential (until he wasn't).

Hels said...


J Edgar is a great example, thank you! Those results sound as if the viewers had fixed ideas about Hoover and the CIA, even before they saw the film for themselves. So we should consider two issues:

1. the film was directed by Clint Eastwood, not known to be a deep and neutral historical thinker, and

2. Suzannah Lipscomb was particularly interested in films purporting to tell the whole truth about little known historical eras. If you know, or think you know everything about Hoover, even a biased film won't influence your thinking. But if you don't even know where the Kiev Oblast is, you are much more likely to be influenced by a film like Bitter Harvest.

mem said...

The thing that is becoming depressingly clear to me is that people on the whole will see what they want to see . The concept of evidence and perspective seem to be irrelevant to an alarmingly large proportion of the worlds population . There are those who just dont understand the concepts of evidence due to poor education and are easily manipulated by those who have a particular point of view which is not open to discussion or change . They can sometimes be very good at manipulation of the former group who want the safety they find in group thinking , hating and blaming another group. It just seems to be part of our makeup as its seen everywhere . The only hope is teaching critical thinking in schools so that hopefully the concept of looking at the evidence might occur to people . I dont hold out lot of hope though . The internet has made the propagation of hatred so much more efficient . The partisanship which sees people only subscribing to sites that agree with their own point of view means that it is becoming more difficult to change the way people approach ech other . Its why a free press is SO IMPORTANT .

Hels said...


yes!! Now we have to ask if that situation is irredeemable?

Facing History And Ourselves offers “A Contested History” that introduces American students to the way the Reconstruction era has been remembered throughout the past 150 years. The battle over the memory of Reconstruction has in many ways mirrored the political, social and economic struggles of each subsequent era of American history. Therefore before and after showing the video, students need to talk about how they perceive the connection between the study of history and their beliefs.

I would recommend the same process for all contested histories.

Dr. F said...

When you write that between 3 and 9 million people died during the famine in the Ukraine, it would appear that you give equal weight to both sides in this issue. Does the 3 million figure come from the old Soviet natural tragedy explanation? does the nine million figure come from those who see that the famine was a man made event caused by the collectivization policy of Stalin and the Communist party? Should the Soviet historians and their followers be called deniers because they leave out six million human beings in their death count?

Hels said...

Dr F

thank you for a detailed response. Dr Lipscomb selected the Indian-Pakistani and Russian-Ukrainian examples because she wanted to make a point about historical atrocities that were hidden, unclear or vigorously contested. She explicitly stated that the events as told in the films were almost certainly true.

By the way, my (maternal) family lived in Mariupol, Berdyansk and Grafskoy, as the cities were called back then.

Honest History said...

Honest History promotes balanced consideration of Australian history by offering contesting, evidence-based interpretations to students, teachers, universities, journalists and the public. We challenge the misuse of history to serve political or other agendas.

"Rewriting the history of Gallipoli: a Turkish perspective" is but one example.