On this day March 3, 1915, a few weeks after its West Coast premiere in Los Angeles, director D.W. Griffith's controversial Civil War epic The Birth of a Nation opens in New York City. . A 40-piece orchestra accompanied the silent film.
Originally entitled The Clansman, based on a novel of the same name by Thomas Dixon, Griffith’s career-making film depicted the white supremacist organization the Ku Klux Klan as a welcome force of order that arose amid the chaos of the post-Civil War era in the South. .
Griffith, whose father served as a colonel in the Confederate Army, agreed to pay Thomas Dixon $10,000 (equal to $232,027 today) for the rights to his play The Clansman. Dixon reluctantly agreed, and the unprecedented success of the film made him rich.
Originally presented in two parts, separated by an intermission, the final cut of The Birth of a Nation ran nearly three hours and showcased cutting-edge filmmaking techniques for the time, including multiple camera angles, panoramic long shots, the iris effects, still-shots, night photography, panning camera shots, and a carefully staged battle sequence with hundreds of extras made to look like thousands.
Many historians disputed Griffith’s view of history as a distortion that glamorized the violent actions of the Klan and demonized African Americans men, (played by white actors in blackface) as unintelligent and sexually aggressive towards white women. The film completely discounted their valuable contributions during and after the Civil War and degrading the important efforts made during Reconstruction to grant former slaves civil rights and a role in government.
The NAACP published a pamphlet denouncing the film, referring to it as “three miles of filth.” The cities of Chicago; Denver; Kansas City, Missouri; Minneapolis; Pittsburgh; and St. Louis, Missouri refused to allow the film to open. The film's inflammatory character was a catalyst for gangs of whites to attack blacks. In Lafayette, Indiana, after seeing the film, a white man murdered a black teenage. The outcry of racism was so great that Griffith was inspired to produce Intolerance the following year.
Despite the controversy The Birth of a Nation would become the first true Hollywood blockbuster, earning more than $10 million (the equivalent of $200 million today) as audiences lined up to pay the unprecedented rate of $2 per ticket, (equal to $45.95 today) In 1998, it was voted one of the "Top 100 American Films" (#44) by the American Film Institute..