Writer, director, and lead actor Nate Parker (The Great Debaters, Red Tails)’s The Birth of a Nation is now playing in theaters across the country, but not in the light the young filmmaker was hoping for. The film struggled to reach $7 million in domestic box office sales in its opening weekend. Several factors could have contributed to the surprising low, but the most likely cause of the low turn out is Parker’s 1999 rape allegations during his time at Penn State. Although Parker was exonerated, news that his alleged victim committed suicide in 2012 and his handling of the case back in 1999 have caused a great controversy that has women’s rights and sexual assault advocate groups shouting boycott all across the country.
While Parker’s film may be controversial in its own right, the original Birth of a Nation, which was a silent movie released in 1915, was just as controversial, if not more so. The original Birth of a Nation is remembered for its blatantly racial undertones and simultaneous impressive contributions to filmmaking. It is considered to mark the birth of modern American cinema, and is still one of the highest grossing films of all time, after calculating for inflation. It grossed an estimated $10 million in box office sales, which was great for the production companies who had ended up spending more than $100,000 making the film. Birth of a Nation was based on a novel and play by Thomas Dixon Jr. called The Clansman. It was directed and co-produced by D.W. Giffith who, upon its release, was surprised and “hurt” at the interpretation and criticism of the film as racist. So much so that his next film, Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages, was released the very next year to demonstrate the dangers of intolerance in society (ironic considering the film was marked as ‘intolerant’ towards the African American race).
Upon its release, Birth of a Nation sparked nationwide protests in several major cities, including Los Angeles and Chicago, and even started riots in cities like Philadelphia and Boston. In the film, black men are portrayed by white actors wearing paint and masks, and are shown to be unintelligent and aggressive, especially around white women. In fact, those black roles that required interaction with white women were specifically portrayed by white actors, even one of the white character’s black maids. The Ku Klux Klan is also portrayed as a heroic organization in the film, which is credited for reviving the then-dead KKK organization. The group staged a “rebirth” the same year Birth of a Nation was released, and used the film as a recruitment tool in the years following its release. Ironically, the release date was set on the 50th anniversary of the cessation of the American Civil War.
Despite its reputation as incredibly racist, the filmmakers behind Birth of a Nation are responsible for pioneering new film techniques that had never been used before. Panoramic long shots, still shots, nighttime photography, panning shots, color tinting, and intricately staged battle scenes were all brand new to audiences. Griffith reportedly captured panoramic shots by tying the camera to a set of balloons and letting it fly over the scene to be filmed, giving audiences the first aerial camera views on film. Its musical score is also credited with the idea of invoking emotional drama on film, which was especially important for the silent era before film.
Knowing the historical context of the original, it’s easy to see why 100 years later, Parker would want to make a modern adaptation that speaks volumes on racial equality to today’s generation. His film centers around Nat Turner‘s famous 1831 slave rebellion in the antebellum South, which despite having received nothing but positive remarks at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is in danger of going mostly unnoticed because of Parker’s personal demons. Nevertheless, the importance, or relevance of both films to society during the times of their release will not soon be forgotten. The original film inspired many African American filmmakers to begin making films that showed black people in a positive light. Parker’s film (if enough people see it) will also more than likely inspire other filmmakers and even regular citizens to continue to fight for racial equality now and in the years to come.