Bal­ti­more and the first ‘Birth of a Na­tion’ film

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND - By Chris Kal­tenbach THEN AND NOW chris.kal­tenbach@balt­sun.com

Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Na­tion,” the emo­tional story of a bloody 1831 slave re­bel­lion, isn’t the first movie with that ti­tle to open in Bal­ti­more. Or to be steeped in con­tro­versy.

D.W. Grif­fith’s 1915 “The Birth of a Na­tion,” hailed as a tech­ni­cal and artis­tic tri­umph, was also con­tro­ver­sial, em­brac­ing the South­ern cause in the Civil War, mak­ing he­roes of the Ku Klux Klan (which rides to the res­cue of a be­sieged white fam­ily in the film’s fi­nale) and be­ing ir­re­deemably racist.

“Birth” opened here on March 6, 1916, play­ing seven weeks at Ford’s Opera House on Fayette Street. While The Bal­ti­more Sun ap­plauded it for what one writer called “the fair­ness with which the crit­i­cal strug­gle be­tween the Govern­ment and the States is re­pro­duced in mov­ing­pic­ture form,” ob­jec­tions were raised.

In The Sun of March 21, 1916, a let­ter from “Ver­i­tas” read: “It seems in­con­ceiv­able 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 ... 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.”

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.”

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