The Birth of a Nation: How ugliness changed Toronto’s movie-going landscape


It’s no secret that D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is one of the most racist films ever made — a declaration not lost on Toronto audiences when it premiered at the  Royal Alexandra Theatre on September 20, 1915.

The film, a revisionist account of the American Civil War, the Reconstruction period that followed and the creation of the Ku Klux Klan — all of which vilified the African-American population — played at Bell Lightbox earlier this week as part of their Essential Cinema programme.

When presented in its proper context — the Lightbox screening was accompanied by DJ Spooky‘s fantastic contextualizing re-mix, Rebirth of a Nation — contemporary presentations of the film are about encouraging debate, and remembering that, as TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey told the Toronto Star‘s Peter Howell, “you can’t dimiss history.”

Like writing history with lightning

In 1915, the film’s premiere wasn’t about context or learning a historical lesson. It was entertainment. Going to the movies.

But that entertainment was masquerading as propaganda, receiving its biggest endorsement when U.S. President Woodrow Wilson allegedly said: “It’s like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all terribly true.”

It played to a packed house at the King Street theatre for two weeks, returning in December.

Not unlike the many protests drawn in the United States, local critics and social activists deplored the ways in which Griffith grossly caricaturized African-Americans, who, with the exception of a few minor roles, were played by white men and women in blackface.

On the very day in which a Star headline read “Colored people appear to be only opponents of the film,” Rev. A.W. Hackley of the A.M.E. Church — who planned to protest the film before the Provincial government — said the film “engenders racial strife and that, in unmodified form, it is not good for any race to see.”

But those defending the film didn’t seem to understand what the fuss was all about. The Royal Alexandra’s manager, W.E. Cuthbert (yes, really), claimed that the film’s opposition had been greatly misinformed. “I wish to state that about 500 feet of this film drama is devoted to the present-day negroes, showing their school, industries, etc. and how it would be hard for the South to get along without them, and also showing them to be honorable and respected citizens,” he told the Daily Star.

An unnamed, yet  prominent member of the Red Cross told the Daily Star that “patriotic societies” (meaning, assumedly, rich, Orange-ordered white men wearing monocles) weren’t paying any attention to it and that “any offence it could give to the colored people must surely be slight.”

Censors schmensors

Since the Ontario  Censor Board had already passed the film, an unsuccessful delegation was set up to prevent the nitrate print from entering Canada. George E. Armstrong, Ontario’s first chief censor, said the film simply treated “one period of history in the United States, with which period neither England nor Canada had any part.” Referring to the conflict in which Canadian and British troops were then embroiled, he said the film carried “no objectionable features from the national standpoint.”

Armstrong’s comments are puzzling — not to mention hypocritical — since one of the Censor Board’s mandates was to shield the eyes of Ontario’s monarchy-loving public from pro-American imagery. The Birth of a Nation was as gung-ho American as possible until the war bond raising efforts a few years later.

The Birth of a Nation was not the first feature film to play Toronto screens but Griffith’s innovative camera techniques, a 30 piece orchestra and an evening price-tag ranging from $0.50 to $1.50 (a night-time performance at the Loew’s that same week ranged $0.10 to $0.25) was a game changer, forever ensuring that future university students couldn’t get through a first year film class without having to sit through every frame of what DJ Spooky calls the beginning of American film propaganda.

Until then, “select photoplays” — short subjects, gag reels and the like — were merely an added attraction to a theatre’s programming, which included Vaudeville, plays, comics and other forms of entertainment.

Within a year, feature films would become the main attraction.

Sources:

Brockhouse, Robert. Royal Alexandra Theatre: A Celebration of 100 Years, Harper Collins, 2008.
Toronto Daily Star, September 17, 18, 20 1920
Griffith, Richard. The Movies, Simon & Schuster, 1970.
Moore, Paul S. Now Playing: Early Movie-going and the Regulation of Fun, p. 202, SUNY Press, 2009.

This article was originally posted at Heritage Toronto on November 19, 2010.

Top image shows a 1947 protest against The Birth of a Nation in New York City. Credit Library of Congress, Prints and photographs division, LC-USZ62-84505

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