“Nate Parker’s drama The Birth of a Nation, which sold at Sundance on Jan. 26 for a record $17.5 million, shares its title with D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film, but that’s about all the two have in common. Parker’s movie centers on Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion; Griffith’s focuses on two white families during the Civil War and the Ku Klux Klan’s rise during Reconstruction. Much of what was portrayed in the first feature-length U.S. movie is repugnantly racist, but it changed the film business forever.
The two-hour-plus, $110,000 ($2.6 million today) epic was the first movie to screen at a legitimate theater in New York. Tickets were $2 for the best seats ($47 today), and a 40-piece orchestra accompanied twice-daily screenings. To say Nation — hyped as having employed 18,000 people and 3,000 horses — thrilled audiences would be an understatement: Within five years of its debut, 50 million people, or 1 in 2 Americans, had seen the film. When President Woodrow Wilson hosted a private White House screening March 21, 1915, he said Nation was “like writing history with lightning.” But he added, “My only regret is that it is all so terribly true,” which stoked controversy.
Black men in the film were watermelon-eating caricatures intent on raping white women and barefoot, whiskey-guzzling Reconstruction-era legislators, while the gallant Klan is seen riding to the rescue. The NAACP denounced the movie as “a glorification of the Ku Klux Klan…”