As far as Hollywood is concerned, we're still fighting the Civil War: "Lincoln," "Django Unchained" and "Twelve Years a Slave" are just the latest in a long line of films, some distinguished and others shameful or just plain silly—or perhaps all three, like "Gone With the Wind"—that have depicted the war and its discontents. But the granddaddy of them all was D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation," a cinematic breakthrough in 1915 that set the bar for all that followed.
Griffith was hailed as "the teacher of us all" by Charlie Chaplin, himself a great cinematic pioneer. The fade-out, the soft focus and the creation of scenes of alternating close-ups and long shots—Griffith didn't personally invent any of these innovations, but he used them to stunning effect in "The Birth of a Nation." In the process, he helped create the rhythms and language of modern visual storytelling and, at 190 minutes, the modern epic. "To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel," wrote film critic James Agee.
But Griffith's artistic triumph was also a horrifyingly racist movie that celebrated white supremacy, helped restore the pernicious myth of the antebellum South as a chivalrous society and slavery as a benign institution, and slandered African-Americans as hapless children or vile sexual predators. The release of the movie triggered legal action, riots and the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.
In "The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America's Civil War" a lively and well-researched book about the film, Dick Lehr focuses his lens on two men: Griffith, the Kentucky-born son of a slaveholder who wrote, produced and directed it; and William Monroe Trotter, the Boston-born son of a slave who, as a fiery editor of a pro-civil-rights newspaper, led the effort to have the film banned. Both were difficult, complicated and blustery men prone to self-aggrandizement and outlandish rhetorical flourishes. Mr. Lehr, a longtime journalist and a professor at Boston University, nicely draws the parallels between them even as he chronicles their bitter divisions over race, politics and culture.
Trotter was born in 1872 and came of age in Boston at a time when a handful of gifted blacks were making personal breakthroughs in white American society. He was the first black student to be elected to Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard, where he graduated magna cum laude. But afterward he drifted from job to job, working as a clerk at several stores and as a mortgage broker, until he found his true vocation at the age of 29 as co-founder and managing editor of the Guardian, a radical weekly newspaper based in Charlestown.
The Guardian attacked white racism but saved its strongest invective for the accommodationist policies of Booker T. Washington, whites' favorite black leader, who prescribed self-improvement and humility to his fellow blacks as a response to systemic racism. Never one to mince words, Trotter labeled Washington "the traitor within." He scorned Washington's approach as nothing more than servility, insisting that this was the wrong strategy to take at a time when lynching was making a comeback in the South. "Is the rope and torch all the race is to get under your leadership?" he asked Washington rhetorically.
After Trotter helped break up a public meeting in Boston where Washington was scheduled to speak, the educator returned the favor by hiring spies to dig up dirt on the editor and bring libel suits against the Guardian while funneling money to a rival black paper.
Along with former Harvard colleague W.E.B. Du Bois, Trotter in 1905 helped create the Niagara Movement, a forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. But the NAACP, founded four years later, eclipsed Trotter's organization. Trotter was too much of a one-man band. His friendships and business partnerships, writes Mr. Lehr, were inevitably sabotaged by his "bumptiousness and egotism, and eagerness for notoriety."
While Trotter was crashing into the treacherous barriers of racial politics, David Wark Griffith was stumbling through a dubious career as a journeyman theater actor and playwright. Born outside Louisville in 1875, Griffith had grown up a simple farm boy, "steeped in the tradition of a Lost Cause that saw slavery as a gentle, paternalistic feature of the southern way of life; secession as a logical response to the North's belligerent intrusion into the South's affairs," as Mr. Lehr puts it.
After the death of his boozy and bombastic father, Griffith's family had to sell their deeply mortgaged country home and head to the city. Louisville had eight playhouses, and the young man caught the theater bug, working as an usher and stagehand before hooking on as an actor. He spent 11 years enduring meager pay, bad food, dubious companions, fleabag boardinghouses and poor reviews, one of which called him "a man of deplorably finite acting prowess."
Griffith was rescued from mediocrity by the birth of the movie business. In his memoir, "The Man Who Invented Hollywood" (published posthumously in 1972), he couldn't recall exactly where or when he first saw a moving picture but said that he was impressed by the size of the audience and, at the same time, convinced that "I could write far better scenarios than were being shown." In December 1907 he joined Thomas Edison's fledgling American Mutoscope and Biograph Co. as an actor, but by the following June he had made the jump to director.
Griffith, who had cut his teeth composing vaudeville playlets, segued easily to writing, producing and directing one-reel films of 15 minutes or less. In five years, he made some 480 short films—he called them "photoplays"—honing his craft, mastering film editing and creating visual melodramas. Fed up with low pay and lack of recognition, Griffith left Biograph in 1913 and set out on his own. His first project: an adaptation of Thomas Dixon Jr.'s best-selling novel, "The Clansman," whose affection for the Old South and contempt for the Reconstruction era mirrored Griffith's own.
A great book deserved epic treatment, Griffith believed, and he set out make a film of three hours. He gathered his talented crew of young actors—including Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Miriam Cooper and Walter Long—and filmed the tale of two friendly families, the Stonemans and the Camerons, one Northern and the other Southern, torn apart by the Civil War and its evil aftermath, Reconstruction. "I could just see these Klansmen in a movie with their white robes flying," Griffith would fondly recall.
But the film's depiction of Reconstruction is where the poison of Griffith's racism truly takes hold. Two evil black characters, Silas and Gus—both played by white actors in black face—rise to power within the Reconstruction regime in South Carolina. They are violent, hypersexual predators who lust after white women. In the film's most harrowing scene, Gus pursues the virginal Flora as Griffith's camera cuts back and forth between the feral black man and his white prey. She comes to a cliff's edge, while the camera zooms in on Gus's crazed expression. As he steps toward Flora, she jumps to her death.
The movie perpetrated every twisted racist stereotype. "Every man who comes out of one of our theaters is a Southern patriot for life," crowed novelist Dixon. Even Griffith's loyal black maid was shaken when she saw the film, telling him: "It hurt me, Mr. David, to see what you do to my people." (Mr. Lehr doesn't record Griffith's response.)
With Dixon's help, Griffith launched a clever marketing scheme full of false statements and exaggerations. Ads claimed that the movie cost $500,000 to make and employed "25,000 soldiers in action in battlefield." (Both numbers were wildly inflated.) Dixon even persuaded Woodrow Wilson, a fellow Southerner, to allow a screening in the East Room—the first movie ever shown at the White House.
Du Bois and other NAACP leaders tried to raise money to make a competing film called "Lincoln's Dream" but failed. After that they went from city to city to protest screenings and sought, with little success, to get the film banned. Some progressives felt queasy pursuing censorship even against such a vile film.
Monroe Trotter had no such compunctions. He pleaded with Boston Mayor James M. Curley to ban "The Birth of a Nation," arguing that "the film excited hatred for colored people." Curley, who found Trotter insufferable, held a public hearing three days before the film was due to open—Trotter and Griffith were both in attendance, perhaps the only time they ever crossed paths. The mayor adjourned the session with no decision and directed the city censor (every major city had some official censorship mechanism in those post-Victorian days) to watch the movie and report back. But before the censor could do so, Griffith staged an advanced screening. The result was rave reviews. "You sit overpowered by the beauty and magnitude of the pictures," wrote one journalist.
Trotter and his supporters then turned to the Massachusetts legislature, which easily passed a bill expanding the state's censorship laws and establishing a three-member panel to enforce standards. The panel refused to act against the film, and a local judge upheld their decision.
Thus on the night of the film's official Boston premiere in April 1915, Trotter led a group of protesters who caused a mini-riot, provoking police violence. Some managed to get inside the theater, setting off stink bombs and throwing rotten eggs at the screen. No matter: The film went on to play a record 360 times. Across the country, "The Birth of a Nation" was a huge hit. It also gave the NAACP a national profile: The organization conducted a campaign of protests and legal action in cities across the country.
The toxic legacy of "The Birth of a Nation" endured. In November 1915, inspired by the movie, a dozen Georgians gathered on Stone Mountain outside Atlanta to relaunch the KKK.
scores flocked to the Klan, Trotter's star faded rapidly. Depressed by ill health and financial difficulties, he fell or jumped from the rooftop of a Boston boardinghouse in 1934. Griffith lived until 1948, long enough to tell an interviewer that he regretted the bitter discord the film had unleashed. "The Negro race has had enough trouble," he said.
—Mr. Frankel, former director of the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, is author of "The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend."