President Woodrow Wilson uttered those famous words "it is like writing history with lightning" after the first showing of the first film ever in the White House on the evening of March 21, 1915. That night's selection for viewing? D.W. Griffith's (the son of a confederate veteran) "historical" piece on the American Civil War – written from the perspective of the Ku Klux Klan and taking the Rev. Thomas Dixon Jr.'s virulently racist 1905 polemical play "The Clansman" as its historical source – The Birth of a Nation.

The Birth of a Nation is a film that has clearly weighed heavily on the mind of Spike Lee in his evolution as an artist (and not just because of its references in his new film). He even got into it with his professors at NYU's Film School when they would screen the movie and note the technical innovations in Griffith's film but not talk about the social context of it (see Lee talking with Pharell Williams about that in the YouTube video interview embedded below), and just why it was so damned offensive both now and in 1915 when it came out. The faculty only wanted to talk about the filming techniques that Griffith did indeed pioneer in the movie – including panoramic long shots, iris effects (expanding or contracting circular masks to either reveal and open up a scene, or close down and conceal a part of an image), still shots, night photography, panning shots and more – while essentially leaving out any and all social context – how blacks were treated as apish thugs in the film, and the Klansmen terrorists as "white saviors", or even the use of blackface by white performers in the film to drive this point of supposed black brutishness home.

Pharell Williams interviews Spike Lee and Lee reflects some on THE BIRTH OF A NATION story.

Clearly ignoring history is no way to examine any piece of art, let alone one that so defined such an important medium as cinema the way The Birth of a Nation did. Yes Griffith's movie was brilliant from a technical perspective, but it was unthinkably racist and hopelessly revisionist and polemical in its view to the real history of what happened in this country during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Despite the film turning about $18 million by the start of the talking pictures, not everyone in the United States in 1915 was happy or even placid about The Birth of a Nation. Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis (along with other major cities) banned the film entirely following its February 8, 1915 premiere at Clune's Auditorium in L.A. and then beginning a road show to hit theaters across the country. Meanwhile, in Boston, African-American journalist Moses Trotter led a crusade to get the film banned in that city.

See an excerpt below from The Birth of a Nation below courtesy of C-SPAN on YouTube. I would also highly recommend watching the full cut of the film that I have embedded below this piece, especially if you've never seen it before. Every American should see it to understand just where we have come from as a people, and where we never want to return to.

A clip from THE BIRTH OF A NATION showing just a bit of the offensive nature of the film, including characters in black face. It is important to realize that plenty of people were offended by this in 1915 too despite what the film's profit numbers said (part of the reason for the $18 million figure was the rather astronomical (for then) ticket cost of $2.00 a piece.

Still from THE BIRTH OF A NATION showing a character in black face.

THE BIRTH OF A NATION movie poster circa 1921.

Early 1920's THE BIRTH OF A NATION ad in Portland, Oregon.

Klan ad from Vancouver, WA's The Daily Province, November 23, 1925.

Others took a different tact than a wholesale ban of the film, however. In 1916, brothers George Perry Johnson and Noble Johnson (a contract actor at Universal who would later star in movies like The Most Dangerous Game in 1932 and King Kong in 1933) founded the Lincoln Motion Picture Company which had middle-class melodramas as their central focus and black soldiers, black families, and black heroes as their main characters – topics and peoples still foreign to many movie-going audiences, but organized into a cinematic response after The Birth of a Nation. Lincoln Motion Picture released films like The Realization of a Negro's Ambition a year after The Birth of a Nation, A Trooper of Troop K in 1917, and The Birth of a Race in 1918.

Oscar Micheaux soon was another filmmaker to follow suit, releasing The Homesteader in 1919. He would go on to make over 40 films, most exploring the spirit of his times: lynching, religion, and criminality. I highly recommend watching his silent film from 1920 titled Within Our Gates, embedded below courtesy of The Library of Congress on YouTube.

Oscar Micheaux's, a very early pioneer in African-American filmmaking, final cut of his silent picture from 1920 titled WITHIN OUR GATES.


From the original movie poster for Micheaux's WITHIN OUR GATES.

A 1920 newspaper advert for Micheaux's WITHIN OUR GATES.

1919 advert for THE HOMESTEADER.

The other reaction to Griffith’s film is far and away the saddest. The Klan was a crazy organization essentially relegated to little pockets in various very backwoods areas of the American South until 1915. Local Klan groups got the idea to couple advertisements for "the Invisible Empire" with adverts for Griffith's film, and the result was… depressingly predictable now that we know the power of cinema to move audiences.

In BlacKkKlansman, Ron Stallworth the detective is secretly watching a Klan screening of The Birth of a Nation. The crowd gets raucous the rougher blacks on screen are treated. This is not at all far from reality as the Klan still holds screenings of Griffith's film to this day – yes, all three hours of it with Griffith's intended intermission half way through.

Lee's film is an incredible, visceral tale of "all power to all da people" and the incredible legacy of one man infiltrating hate, who then became two as his partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) joins Stallworth’s undercover op, who then became even more as they are supported by others in the department – a point that's driven home when their white cop buddies help them bust a racist, thuggish, power-abusing cop in their department. Indeed, the character study that is BlacKkKlansman is pretty incredible too: essentially, there is no Ron Stallworth (the undercover identity, not the man) without contributions from both Washington's character and Driver's character – the two men make what is one bad ass, entertaining, non-mythic (in so far as the film is based on a true story) modern superhero in their JOINT contributions to the undercover character they develop. The Academy should recognize this and consider both men for a joint Best Actor Oscar in the upcoming Awards for their portrayals in BlacKkKlansman.

Of course, being Spike Lee, there is much about BlacKkKlansman that explicitly ties into racism on both sides of the aisle today too. A particularly clever barb was Alec Baldwin's character – the fictional white supremacist Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard – sloppily (he often forgets his lines) spewing a long stream of racist hate in a darkened room in front of footage of the Civil Rights Movement and a Virginia Battle Flag on the wall, when we get a quick blast of, "they're 'superpredators'." Hillary Clinton used this term to describe "kid" gang members, when speaking about her husband's 1994 crime bill in 1996 (something Bernie Sanders called her out on). This line is directly drawn to the modern day when we get to Donald Trump's obvious and unequivocal racism like the "shithole" comment and his abhorrent response to Charlottesville's 2017 "Unite the Right" rally.

Overall, the point of BlacKkKlansman beyond being entertaining as hell – which it absolutely is – is that history is sadly cyclical. If we do not learn from our past we will be condemned to repeat it.

It's for that reason I propose that we start breaking that pattern right here, right now. President Wilson: your quote "it is like writing history with lightning" is an abomination when applied to a film as hate-filled, anti-American, and utterly avoidant to true history as The Birth of a Nation. We the People, in taking "all power to all da people", are taking it for a much more noble piece of art – a piece of art that actually deserves the quote because it truly is "like writing history with lightning" in its wit, power, and visceral nature.

To hell with the racists. If I've ever seen a film that's truly "like writing history with lightning" it's BlacKkKlansman.

See 3 clips and the trailer from BlacKkKlansman below, in addition to a complete cut of The Birth of a Nation.

For more on BlacKkKlansman, check out my interview with Craig "muMs" Grant (who stars in it) here.

Clip 1: “Undercover”

Clip 2: “The President”

Clip 3: “America First”

BlacKkKlansman trailer