By one way of reckoning, this week — February 8, to be exact — can be called the 100th birthday of the medium that many of us have spent our lives enthralled with: the feature film. But don’t expect any parades, fireworks, grand speeches, or other shows of celebration. That’s because the film that premiered at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles on February 8, 1915, was D. W. Griffith’s The Clansman, soon to be retitled The Birth of a Nation — the most virulently racist major movie ever released in the U.S.
Of course, the definitions of such landmark dates can be debated. (Thanks to propaganda by the French, many people think motion pictures were first publicly projected in Paris by the Lumiere brothers in December of 1895, when in fact this was accomplished in New York by a former Confederate artillery officer named Woodville Latham seven months earlier.) But the three-hour Birth of a Nation had a dual impact that was profound: Aesthetically, it synthesized the various cinematic storytelling devices that had been created until that time into a grand whole that many saw as announcing the arrival of a full-fledged art form; commercially, it performed so spectacularly in road-show engagements across the country as to effectively propel the industry from the era of storefront nickelodeons mainly serving lower-class crowds toward that of stand-alone movie palaces aimed at middle-class viewers. In a real sense, Hollywood itself was constructed on the foundations laid down by Birth, which is sometimes still reckoned the most commercially successful movie ever released.
It’s almost impossible for us to imagine what it was like for viewers to encounter Birth in 1915. Many would have never seen any movie before; only a few would have seen one longer than 20 minutes; and no one had seen anything with the visual dynamism, emotional power, and spectacular sweep of this one. Among its innovations, Birth owed much of its impact — ironically, for a “silent” film — to being the first movie with a score written specifically for it and performed by a live orchestra, along with a battery of backstage sound effects. Contemporary accounts emphasize how important the film’s sonic attack, coupled with Griffith’s extraordinary editing, was to the way it gripped and galvanized audiences — leaving many thinking they’d seen “history written in lightning,” to quote the famous but probably apocryphal praise by President Woodrow Wilson, after the first-ever screening of a movie in the White House.
It’s no less essential for anyone wanting to grasp the ambivalent spells movies cast over us, especially ones in which visceral excitements and racial undertones intertwine. Griffith, after all, invented much about this popular art form, and his influence abides. For example, as the music swells and helicopters sweep down from the night sky at the climax of Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips — another scene, like those in a thousand Westerns, of heroic white guys riding to the rescue of innocent whites imperiled by vicious darkies — I couldn’t help but recall the Klan’s triumphant arrival, set to the strains of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” in Birth. These days, of course, cinematic hostility toward the darker races is usually permissible only when they are foreign. Which is to say: Is it not possible — just something to think about, trolls — that Americans a century from now will be as appalled by the huge popularity of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, as we are by the countrywide hosannahs that greeted Birth?