The Birth of a Nation — described as one of the most racist films ever made and widely used as a Ku Klux Klan recruiting tool — was a big hit in New Zealand. Auckland artist Zarahn Southon looks at how a white supremacist propaganda film influenced a generation of New Zealanders.
When 10,000 protesters marched in Auckland to express outrage for the racist killing of George Floyd and show solidarity with Black Lives Matter, questions not raised since the Christchurch mosque terrorist attacks were aimed toward New Zealand’s perceived historic racial harmony.
During the first few days of the BLM protests in the US, Scott Hamilton, an Auckland historian, tweeted an unsettling photograph of university students riding horseback down Karangahape Road in Auckland, in 1922. They were a drama troupe, draped in Ku Klux Klan robes, celebrating their play “Bu Blux Blan” after capping.
What struck me was the picture’s cinematic composition and framing – it was similar to scenes from a wild west film.
Like most visual art practices, our pictorial decisions are responses to another image, narrative, or artform. The photographer, when they stepped out on to the middle of the road, had an image in mind — capturing, in cinematic scope, the young clansmen, abreast, with a row of buildings in perspective.
It was an image shared in the minds of the university students as well, since only several years earlier, as children, they and the whole country had been seduced by a new and innovative approach to drama. They were recreating the aesthetics of white supremacist cinematic propaganda — a film called The Birth of a Nation, which had been a hit in New Zealand in 1916.
Described as one of the most racist films ever made, and widely used as a Ku Klux Klan recruiting tool, D W Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is a fictitious representation of the American Civil War. It was adapted from a novel, The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon Jr, an avowed white supremacist and propagandist.
The film opened in cinemas across America and Europe in 1915. Willing audiences were charmed by the film’s technical innovations and bigoted propaganda. Many perceived the film to be based on historical fact.
Being the first major production in the new medium of silent film, it stands as a grotesque caricature of the Reconstruction era. The screenplay is a cacophony of one-dimensional characters: “black rapists”, “blonde-haired victims”, and “Ku Klux Klan heroes”. It was to become the first major blockbuster, grossing $30 million.
Thomas Dixon Jr’s aim for his racist screenplay was, in his own words, to serve as propaganda. The Birth of a Nation helped to revive and swell the ranks of Ku Klux Klan membership in the US, which, in early 1915, had been in sharp decline. The Klan adopted the film as a recruitment tool. Grand Wizard David Duke was still using it to recruit members late into the 1970s.
In 1915, news came from abroad of cinemas packed to capacity. France had banned the film — although not from any moral duty for the negative portrayals of African Americans played by white actors in blackface. Rather, chief censors rejected the Americanisation of French cinema.
But the ban only heightened the film’s international appeal. JC Williams LTD, working with Griffith, secured the rights to release the film in Australia and New Zealand.
The Birth of a Nation premiered at the Wellington Town Hall on August 29, 1916. The critical and public response to the film was overwhelmingly positive. The Dominion, on August 30, praised the film’s “spectacular presentation” and its depiction of brave clansmen uprooting “negro insolence”.
Movie-goers packed theatres across New Zealand in anticipation of the spectacle. Only a year earlier, they’d been primed with the silent film The Nigger, by the American playwright and white supremacist Edward Sheldon. The New Zealand Herald had praised that film for being “remarkable” at addressing the “negro problem”.
An Ashburton Guardian article admired The Birth of a Nation for its presentation of Aryan brotherhood, describing it as
an impressive statement upon America’s national policy of race purity. The master stroke of the white man . . . the Ku Klux Klan saved the White Southerners from the fear of an African massacre.
In film theatres throughout the country, scenes of hundreds of clansmen riding triumphantly across the screen to Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries were met with cheers from audiences for the “heroic Ku Klux Klan”. One critic gushed:
the Ku Klux Klan, that wonderful army of white horsemen which struck terror into the hearts of the black people and protected the stricken South . . .
When the film reached Christchurch, a reviewer wrote:
the remarkable battle scenes were frequently applauded, as were the thrilling episodes of the Ku Klux Klan in their struggle to regain supremacy for the white man over the negro.
Griffith’s film dazzled young and old alike with epic-scale grand battles and untrammelled racism. The overt white supremacist propaganda appealed to an already racist segment of New Zealand’s colonial community. In Taranaki, young audiences — whose parents and grandparents likely took part in the Taranaki War, plundering Māori lands and brutally repressing the pacifist Māori community at Parihaka in 1881 — were treated to a glowing review in the Taranaki Times:
. . . the way the clansmen clean up the job is one of the most inspiring sights ever shown on the screen. Thousands of horsemen clad in ghostly garments, race to the dangerous rescue work, and vindicate the superiority of the white man, over the black . . .
Dixon’s abhorrent ideology found favour among New Zealand’s educational elites, like Wellington District Schools Committee secretary Ernest Lilly. He wrote to the New Zealand Times that the “headmasters unanimously agree that the play (picture film) was instructive . . . and educational”. And he concluded:
The effect on the minds of the children of such a clean and inspiring picture was in every way uplifting.
The legacy of The Birth of a Nation was felt throughout New Zealand for years to come. Organised Ku Klux Klan groups sprang up and stretched from Auckland to Christchurch, working with networks in Australia. By 1923, member estimates for the Auckland Klan was around 1,000.
Around the same time, there were reports about threats and the targeting of migrant businesses. The Klan claimed responsibility for an arson attack in the suburb of Mt Eden. But, given the enthusiasm for white supremacy expressed by the press at the time of The Birth of a Nation, it should come as no surprise that there was scant reporting of further hate crimes.
We should reflect on a question posed by Scott Hamilton: “Has there ever been a film more influential?”
The Birth of a Nation is said to have kickstarted Hollywood and the modern blockbuster era, although its racist legacy is a difficult question to answer. That said, I’m in no doubt that the Black Lives Matter uprising has brought into sharp focus the effects of colonialism, capitalism, and its handmaiden, white supremacy.
It was the children of The Birth of a Nation generation, who — to make way for the Queen’s visit in 1952 — burned down a marae and homes belonging to Māori of Ngāti Whātua along Auckland’s waterfront.
They were the same generation that my whaea Dulcie Gardiner and the kaumātua of Ngāti Tūwharetoa came up against in 1964, when they stood in front of bulldozers from the Ministry of Works and tried in vain to halt the destruction of the homes they still occupied, to make way for the township of Turangi. This is described in great detail in Māori academic Dione Payne’s book Riro Whenua Atu, about how institutionalised white supremacy drove her whānau from their lands in the 1960s at Pōkaewhenua, and on to small reservations.
Enforcing white supremacy is seeing the brown and black body as the perpetual criminal. While spying on Māori and Muslim communities, New Zealand’s security services ignored repeated warnings from the Muslim community about the rise of death threats from white supremacist organisations. Thus, allowing a lone gunman to go undetected as he planned his massacre of 51 innocent men, women and children.
Like Dixon’s dark vision, which used modern technology to create propaganda that enforced a vision of forming white ethno-states, the Christchurch terrorist enacted his twisted GoPro fantasy like a butcher in the name of white supremacy, and to try and spark a coming race war.
We must confront our racist past and colonial denialism. In Aotearoa, answering the call from Black Lives Matter was born out of both local and international Black and Indigenous liberation movements of the 1960s. One can rightly assume that the images of the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympic games, beamed into TVs across the planet, inspired young Pasifika and Māori to read the work of Black radical Huey P Newton, and to go on to form the Polynesian Panthers.
Now, Māori, Pasifika and Pākehā radicals (the common people who want to root out racism) chant a battle cry first heard in Ōrākau in 1864, when a defiant Rewi Maniapoto, facing down a British invading army and their demands to surrender, yelled the famous reply:
E hoa, ka whawhai tonu mātou, Āke! Āke! Āke!
Friend, we will fight on forever, forever and forever.
This is an edited version of a piece originally published here and republished with permission.
Zarahn Southon (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Pukenga, Ngāti Pikiao) is an Auckland-based painter. He has a Bachelor of Visual Arts (1998) from Manukau Institute of Technology. In 2005, he was awarded a Contemporary Pacific Art scholarship, which funded study in Florence, Italy. He has since studied at the classical art school Studio Escalier in the Loire Valley, France, and in San Francisco with Ted Seth Jacobs.
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