Part of living in a free society is the ability to react, both positively and negatively, to films, music, books, artwork, politicians, TV shows, celebrities, news events, you name it. You can’t put yourself out there and expect no response, either good or bad. It doesn’t mean you have to love or agree with all the responses, but you at least must accept the fact that not everyone will share your enthusiasm for your work. With a film as intense and controversial as The Birth of a Nation, the responses were often quite emotional. Very few people in 1915 took a moderate view. They tended to either love or hate it.
Of course, President Woodrow Wilson’s enthusiastic support is well-known. There was a private White House screening (which couldn’t stay hushed-up), and President Wilson famously said, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Some historians believe this quote is misattributed, but there’s some pretty good evidence to show he indeed said this.
President Wilson’s glowing endorsement came as a huge shock and embarrassment to African-American leaders like William Monroe Trotter, W.E.B. DuBois, and Booker T. Washington. They’d endorsed him for the 1912 election, and suddenly he was in full support of a film with a lot of ugly racist tropes presented as historical truth, not to mention the justification of the Klan.
By and large, most whites shared President Wilson’s positive opinion. Perhaps they didn’t say it was like history written with lightning, but they loved the film all the same. Many moviegoers responded with tears, gasps, hisses, and applause. The box office gross remains unknown, and figures from five to sixty million dollars have been claimed. However much it really earned, it’s safe to assume it was quite a lot. It earned a lot not only because so many people came to see it, but also because the tickets tended to be more expensive than usual. Many theatres sold tickets for $2–$5. Movie tickets normally cost 10–15 cents.
One white person who didn’t share this uncritically enthusiastic view was Jane Addams (the founder of Chicago’s Hull House and an NAACP member). She publicly voiced her disappointment at the false history depicted as truth, and at the appeal to race prejudice. (The actual racist content, and the now-debunked Dunning School of Reconstruction, will probably be the subject of my next post in this series.)
The NAACP was up in arms about BOAN, and organized protests in various cities. Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Chicago, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Cedar Rapids, New Haven, and Denver were among the cities which refused to allow the film to open. Race riots broke out in Philadelphia, Boston, and several other cities after the film opened. In addition to protesting the film and calling for it to be banned, the NAACP also held a public education campaign, by publishing articles about the fabricated depiction of Reconstructionist history, conducting educational campaigns about the Civil War and Reconstruction, and organizing anti-BOAN petitions.
In 1920, famed director Oscar Micheaux (a so-called “race director”) released Within Our Gates in response to BOAN. It depicts an African-American woman moving North to raise money for a rural school in the Deep South. This film features a lynching and the rape of an African-American woman by a white man. Sadly, I haven’t yet seen this film, since TCM has always shown it at ridiculous hours, but I’m told it takes a more nuanced view towards race relations and people’s attitudes.