The Birth of a Nation and Black History Month

The Birth of a Nation 1915 2015The masterful camerawork and the brilliant direction of D.W. Griffith made The Birth of a Nation the first blockbuster movie. It was for many years the highest grossing film in Hollywood until  the advent of sound and films like Gone with the Wind made this film appear obsolete.

The Birth of a Nation has long been viewed as a dated and deeply flawed cinematic masterpiece. D W Griffith and his cameraman, G.W. Billy Bitzer, made film history with the techniques they established. But the subject matter has long been viewed as openly racist. Yet how ironic that the debut of this film, 100 years ago this month, coincides with our celebration of Black History Month.

Black History Month is a celebration to be marked with pride. It’s one way we as Americans can say: We have come so far. Therefore, a film that glamorizes the Ku Klux Klan and demonizes the enslaved race of black men and women is a film that is no longer seen to be “in vogue.” Instead, we try and focus on more positive things such as the fact that 12 Years a Slave was the winner of Best Picture in 2014.

While it’s true that there are still barriers to keep people of color from being acknowledged on par with their white colleagues, we at least have made note of the discrepancies rather than simply sweeping the evidence under the carpet. Women are still, to a large degree, second class citizens in Hollywood’s upper echelons. That fact has been noted, along with the percentage of white, older, male members of the Academy of Motion Pictures that votes.
All these things still give us hope and cause to celebrate. The actual birth of the nation that we now live in took longer than we would have liked to end the shameful practice of slavery, but the Civil Rights Movement, the election of Barack Obama, and recent films like Selma and 12 Years a Slave, are celebrations and reminders for our society about how far we have come.

Some of the best films about race in America and the Civil Rights Movement have been directed by African-Americans. I consider John Singleton, director of Boys n the Hood from 1991 and Rosewood in 1997 to be superior to Spike Lee, but both are acclaimed for their work. Spike Lee is perhaps most famous for Do the Right Thing, yet he also did an excellent job with Malcolm X in 1992 which starred Denzel Washington.

Other outstanding films dealing with Civil Rights are Mississippi Burning, starring Alec Baldwin as an attorney working with the widow of the slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers. The film focused on the true story of the determined efforts of Evers’ widow to re-open the case and bring his killer, Byron De La Beckwith, to trial almost thirty years after the crime had been committed.

Ghosts of Mississippi, directed by Rob Reiner and released in 1996, was another very good film with Willem Dafoe highlighting the true account of three Freedom Riders killed by Klan members while attempting to organize AfricanAmericans in a small town in Mississippi in the early sixties. Dafoe plays one of the FBI agents sent down from Washington to investigate the disappearance of the young men.

Steven Spielberg has a great movie, not well known, called Amistad, released in 1997, which deals with another true story. The story is not about the Civil Rights movement but it deals with African Americans on board a slave ship called the Amistad. The film centers around the actual trial held in 1839 to determine if the men who had mutinied on board the ship were free men or slaves.

Rosewood, from 1997, and directed by John Singleton, starred Don Cheadle and was based on another real-life event centering around a small town in Florida where the African-American population was completely wiped out in 1923.

There are a few very good films on Nelson Mandela, one being the 2013 Mandela: Long walk to Freedom. But to glean some understanding of the scope of the Civil Rights Movement in our own country, the acclaimed documentary, Eyes on the Prize, released in 1987, is the gold standard by which all other films are held. This 14 hour documentary takes you from the beginning of the movement, with Rosa Parks and the quiet and determined actions of an entire generation of young men and women of color, then on to the triumphs and charismatic leadership of  Martin Luther King which ended with the ultimate tragedy of his death.

All of these films are testaments to Hollywood and independent filmmakers who were determined to make us open our eyes to a subject we still grapple with in the modern era. It’s a fitting tribute to end Black History Month with a nod to some of our great films and filmmakers who have also grappled with the subject of race in America.

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Author of "6 Degrees of Film: The Future of Film in the Global Village", Ms. Johnson continues to blog on film and publishes a newsletter plus the Flipboard magazine 6 Degrees of Film @ the Movies. Her book is currently available on Amazon at

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