Written by Jimena Ortuzar
D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) is widely known as one of the most racist films ever made and also as a groundbreaking work of early cinema. Adapted from the novel and play The Clansman by Thomas Dixon, Jr., The Birth of a Nation is a wildly twisted account of the American Civil War and Reconstruction period that demonizes African Americans and glorifies the Ku Klux Klan. It is frequently taught in film studies classes for its significance to the development of narrative film, and more importantly, as a history lesson in race relations, media, and propaganda.
This landmark film was an event in itself, released like a roadshow “with all the ballyhoo of a circus coming to town.” 1. Billed as “the eighth wonder of the world,” it was a feat of technical artistry and innovative storytelling, with a high ticket price and a full symphony orchestra playing live musical accompaniment. First released in the United States, the film was lauded by audiences and critics alike. But it also sparked protests in the streets and censorship fights in the courtroom, as outraged progressives aimed to shut down the film. Many attempts to cut, ban, or limit the film’s exhibition failed, namely because racism was not grounds for censorship at this time.
The Birth of a Nation had extraordinary success in Canada, playing to huge crowds in various cities across Ontario and having multiple runs in Toronto. It premiered at the Royal Alexandra Theatre on September 20, 1915 (with audiences in formal dress), and soon after at Massey Hall, which extended the show for an additional week in the winter of 1916 and added a second run that summer. The film showed a remarkable ability to return repeatedly to the screen, and on Sep 12, 1916, The Birth of a Nation had its 100th performance in Toronto. It returned to Massey Hall again in 1917 and many more times after.
The reception of The Birth of a Nation in Canadian theatres was overwhelmingly positive (astonishingly, audiences applauded and cheered the KKK vigilantes). For white Canadian audiences in 1915, Griffith’s civil war epic, filled with spectacular battlefield scenes and melodramatic narratives of sacrifice, spoke to their own experiences of the Great War. The Toronto Star reported that black Canadians were the only opponents to the film, which suggests white audiences happily accepted the film's grotesque distortion of history and incendiary racial messages. The black Canadian community in Toronto, likely aware of efforts to ban the film in the US, protested against the exhibition of Griffith’s film. Organizing together through church congregations, black Canadians in Toronto formed a delegation led by Reverend A. W. Hackley of the A. M. E. Church and William P. Hubbard, an African Canadian elected to the Toronto City Council in 1894. The delegation made an appeal to the Theatrical Inspection Board, and after being refused, brought their case to Premier Hearst. On Sep. 20, 1915, Hearst agreed to send an inspector to the first performance of the film to “eliminate the most objectionable scenes.” As a result, two scenes were cut (or rather “trimmed”) by the censor board.
Another delegation of black citizens joined the fight to ban the film before its release in Windsor. The delegation attempted to have an injunction issued against theatre management, but just as it was preparing to do so, the film was suddenly cancelled, allegedly due to a legal oversight during the purchase of the film rights for exhibition. However, as the Winsor Star newspaper later reported, the cancellation of the film may have been a way to avoid the legal battle that the injunction was sure to bring about. News of the successful suppression of the film was reported in The Canadian Observer, a newspaper published for the black community by J.R.B Whitney: “Fight is Ours, Birth of Nation Play Cancelled.”
Opposition to The Birth of a Nation took place elsewhere in the country, with reactions to the film recorded in the press across major cities: Montreal, Vancouver, Saint John and Halifax. In Montreal, a mass meeting was held at the United Congregational Church on September 22, 1915 where a resolution was passed against the film. The following day, the Princess Theatre in Montreal, where the film was to be shown, was burned. After rumours that protestors of the film had been responsible, the police began an investigation. But despite news reports linking the protests to such violent action, struggles to block the film were mainly fought in provincial government offices rather than in theatres.
Nova Scotia was the province where such efforts were most successful. Arguing that it constituted a threat to public order, a delegation of black leaders (and white allies that supported their efforts) lobbied the provincial government to ban the film. While never officially banned, The Birth of a Nation was not shown in 1915 or 1916. 2. This may seem like a small win given the film’s theatrical run and historical significance a century later, but it nonetheless reveals that Griffith’s hate-filled epic did not go unchallenged among black Canadians.
Thomas Doherty. “The Birth of a Nation at 100: Important, Innovative and Despicable.” The Hollywood Reporter. Febrary 7, 2015.
Greg Marquis. “A War Within a War: Canadian Reactions to D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.” Histoire sociale/Social history, 47(94): 421-442, 2014.