How Did “The Birth of a Nation” Impact Real-World History and Race Relations?


When racist Civil War epic The Birth of a Nation (1915) hit theaters, moviegoers lost their minds. On, Tim Dirks writes that D.W. Griffith’s picture became Hollywood’s first blockbuster, earning a whopping $18 million “by the start of the talkies.” Richard Schickel gives an even bigger number, claiming the film raked in $60 million by 1917.

Whatever the exact box office numbers, this film was incredibly popular. According to TCM, excited audiences “screamed in terror and delight, cheering the white heroes and booing, hissing, and cursing the black baddies.” Birth also influenced future filmmakers, introducing techniques like the close-up and parallel editing into mainstream moviemaking.

But while The Birth of a Nation influenced the craft of filmmaking, what was its impact on real-world events? For one, Griffith’s film entered presidential history when it became the first movie ever screened at the White House. President Woodrow Wilson was evidently impressed with the film and allegedly described Birth as “history written with lightning.”

The film also sparked a series of outcries across the nation. When Birth arrived in Boston, an African-American journalist named William Monroe Trotter teamed up with the NAACP to protest the movie’s premiere. Thousands of people showed up, but unfortunately the demonstration took a violent turn, and Trotter was tossed into jail. Things also got out of control in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Colorado, but thanks to national protests, the film was banned in cities like Chicago, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. The Birth of a Nation also had an impact on the NAACP. According to the BBC, membership skyrocketed when the film hit theaters. In fact, their membership numbers doubled.

Sadly, this wasn’t the only organization to receive a boost courtesy of D.W. Griffith. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Ku Klux Klan membership was dwindling, and the cross-burning crazies were on their way out. But when The Birth of a Nation took the country by storm, racists across America donned their white masks and joined the KKK. While there’s no hard data connecting the two events, it’s not far-fetched to conclude that Griffith’s heroic portrayal of the Klan led to their resurgence, especially when you note that the KKK used Birth as recruiting film all the way up to 1970. William J. Simmons—the Alabama teacher who restarted the group—claimed the film “helped the Klan tremendously.”

Birth had another unusual impact on Hollywood history, and we’re not talking about editing techniques; we’re talking about movie moguls. When The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, a young Louis B. Mayer owned a chain of movie theaters across New England. Suspecting Birth would be a smash, he allegedly pawned all his belongings to purchase exclusive regional rights to the film. As the only man who could show the film in New England, Mayer made a killing, and all that cash helped the man move out to California where he started his own production studio—a studio which would become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.