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Baltimore and 'The Birth of a Nation'

A scene from D.W. Griffith's 1915 "The Birth of a Nation."
A scene from D.W. Griffith's 1915 "The Birth of a Nation." (AP)

When Nate Parker's "The Birth of a Nation" opens today, it won't be the first movie with that title to play in Baltimore. Nor will it be the first one steeped in controversy.

Parker's film, the dramatized story of a bloody 1831 slave rebellion, is attracting both praise and controversy – praise for tackling an emotional subject in a direct, heartfelt way that is sure to get people talking, controversy for adding events that may not be part of the historical record (including a brutal rape that helps spur the rebellion) and for being the work of a filmmaker with some issues of his own (Parker was tried on a 1999 rape charge and acquitted).

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When pioneer filmmaker D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" was released in 1915, it was hailed as a masterpiece, possibly the most technically accomplished film yet to come out of Hollywood. But it was also instantly controversial, a film that embraced the Southern cause in the Civil War, made heroes of the Ku Klux Klan (who come to the rescue of a besieged white family in the film's climactic scene) and, even 100 years ago, was seen by many as irredeemably racist. Griffith's film, which would prove the biggest box-office success of the silent-film era, spawned riots in many cities, as well as calls to ban or otherwise censor it.

Controversy has continued to surround the film ever since. "Most Dangerous Film in History Again on Loose," a Sun headline proclaimed when "Birth" was re-released in 1947.

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Baltimore's Ford's Theatre (earlier known as Ford's Opera House), which played D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" for seven weeks in 1916.
Baltimore's Ford's Theatre (earlier known as Ford's Opera House), which played D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" for seven weeks in 1916. (Baltimore Sun)

The original "Birth" opened in Baltimore on March 6, 1916 – more than a year after its Los Angeles and New York premieres. It played at only one theater, Ford's Opera House on Fayette Street (across from the current Everyman Theatre), and remained there for seven weeks; no previous "high-class attraction" had ever played in the city for more than two weeks. At more than three hours long, and displaying a range of cinematic techniques – in its editing, pacing, scope and even its use of light – that constituted an unparalleled achievement for its time, the film, according to a March 7 Sun article, "opened the eyes of the beholders to what powerful wonders rest within the grasp of the 'movies.'

"To call 'The Birth of a Nation' a drama," the unnamed writer continued, "is to belittle it, for the film production is a folio of dramas which unfolds in quick succession the most dramatic and fearful periods of the country's history – the Civil War and the following crucifixion of the South in the era of the carpetbaggers."

Attendance at the twice-daily showings of the film (2:15 p.m. and 8:15 p.m.) remained strong throughout the run. "Audiences that have tested the capacity of the theatre have been in evidence," The Sun reported on March 12. As it entered its fourth week, the Sun noted "the wonderful hold that it has upon the public mind." At five weeks, The Sun reported that it was "beating all records for length of run and for receipts." As its seventh and final week dawned, The Sun reported that "theatregoers are reluctant to part with this spectacular drama."

"The Birth of a Nation" director D.W. Griffith, photographed in 1923.
"The Birth of a Nation" director D.W. Griffith, photographed in 1923. (Library of Congress collection)

While Griffith's film led to riots and other disturbances in many cities, Baltimore seems to have emerged from its run unscathed. And while The Sun consistently applauded "The Birth of a Nation" for what one writer called "the fairness with which the critical struggle between the Government and the States is reproduced in moving-picture form," other voices were raised that found little to praise.

In the March 21, 1916, Sun, a letter from someone using the pseudonym "Veritas" spoke for many. "It seems inconceivable," the letter read, "that so much trouble, time and money should have been taken, 50 years after the war, to stir up the differences that divided the country in those days...by blazing before the people of this day and generation as a true history of those times a lot of selected scenes, so arranged as to make as revolting as possible the conditions which are given as justifying the reign of the Ku Klux Klan."

A 1915 movie poster, advertising a showing of D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" in Seattle. (Library of Congress collection)
A 1915 movie poster, advertising a showing of D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" in Seattle. (Library of Congress collection) (AP)

Concluded Veritas, "I do not believe that any good purpose has been served by this pictured story...and that such moving-pictures should never have been shown."

Even after the film left Ford's, Baltimore was not done with "The Birth of a Nation." A scheduled December 1943 screening of the film at the Roslyn Theatre on Howard Street was canceled by the moviehouse management, The Sun reported, "after civic and labor groups protested that its release would do much to 'aggravate an already tense racial situation' in the city." In 1952, Maryland's Board of Motion Picture Censors banned the film state-wide, holding that it was "morally bad and crime-inciting." And in 1958, after the ban had been lifted, a proposed run at the New Cameo Art Theatre on Harford Road was met with an objection from the executive secretary of the Maryland Commission on Interracial Problems and Relations, who called the movie "a product of outmoded thinking."

It played at the Cameo anyway. A newspaper ad from the theater suggested, however, "Due to its delicate theme, 'The Birth of a Nation' is not recommended for the eyes of children."

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