In examining the frame of mind behind the dedication of a memorial in Helena in 1916, the success and impact of Birth of a Nation has to be considered.
D. W. Griffith, the son of Confederate soldier, became one of the great filmmakers with this film. He took all the rudimentary techniques of film and turned them into a stirring epic with complex use of shots in each scene and sequence. The term “great” is difficult to justify however when one sees the film and realizes it is one of the most racist films ever made.
The first half is a brilliant account of the Civil War. The scene of Lincoln’s assassination still holds up as one of the most powerful film sequences of all time. The second half of the film, however, tells the story of Reconstruction and how the white populace of the South is subjugated by a mulatto Federal agent and the ignorant control of the negro over the military and state governments.
Taking all his skills, Griffith creates a world of ignorant colored people revealing that they are not equal to the white. He creates vivid images of the two types of colored people, “The Beloved Ones," who understand the need for instruction and guidance from the whites, and the “Renegade Negro,” who believes he can be equal.
The black lead roles were played by white men in blackface because the Negro actor was not intelligent enough to perform the part. The black face only makes the characters more grotesque. The main sequence of the movie, the attempted rape of “The Dear One,” a beloved sister and daughter, by a Negro soldier, who believes he has a right to claim a white wife. She throws herself off a cliff rather than submit. The outrage and cries for justice leads to the birth of the Ku Klux Klan.
The author, Thomas Dixon, of the book on which the film is based (The Clansman) went to college with Woodrow Wilson and got him to have the first screening ever in the White House. Wilson’s review, “history written in lightening” and “my only regret, all so terribly true,” helped to answer the calls of the newly formed NAACP, who called the film racist and asked that it be banned. The film went onto be the biggest hit of the silent era and seen by millions of people becoming the first mega-hit.
The film’s and Griffith’s acceptance of the central belief that breaking the Union was wrong, but the cause of the white South, that the colored race was inferior, was true. The film’s success and powerful cinematic storytelling drove that point home. In many parts of the country, like Billings, ads for the film ran alongside ads that called for joining the renewed and no longer secret, KKK. The belief that the film showed the truth created a new energy for Jim Crow everywhere. The vast majority of film audience, North and South, agreed that the inferior colored race needed help and guidance.
Birth of a Nation opened in Helena on March 8, 1916. It didn’t play in the small movie theaters, but at the Auditorium, Helena’s largest venue, that seated hundreds. Tickets were sold by reservation and it often sold out during its multi-week run. The film was shown with a live 25-piece orchestra in the pit playing the score. The review published in the Independent Record the next day revealed the frame of mind of the audience. “The necessity of educating the Negro made apparent throughout the play, although those who saw the picture could not see where 'Birth of a Nation' might incite any prejudice against the colored race.”
Like the rest of the country, the white audience for the film bought into the basic premise, “Breaking the Union was wrong. The inferiority of the colored race was correct.” It is hard then to look at the environment of the Helena community that placed the monument in Hill Park several months after this showing and see the monument only as a dedication honoring the Civil War dead. It also honors the racial understanding that the Confederacy represented.