Birth of a Nation Box Office

Date updated: November 25, 2019 [Up]
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The 1915 film Birth of a Nation was a severely racist film which not only glorified the Ku Klux Klan but actually had a major role in creating the second wave of the Ku Klux Klan.

The claim here is therefore interesting. Sťamus is making the point that the film wasn't just part of Hollywood's racist past, but remains one of the biggest blockbusters of all time.

We're going to take this question in two pieces. The first is whether the number $100 million is correct, and second whether the inflation amount is correct.

As usual, though, we start with with taking a minute to think why this matters. One reason is that we are currently having a national reckoning about the history of racism in this country. And a point a lot of people have been making is how many industries were founded in racism.

If this movie -- the movie many credit for creating the modern Ku Klux Klan -- was one of the biggest grossing films of all time then it can be argued that racism was central to the success of the early film industry. That's a bit of a different argument than saying there were some racist films back then.

There's two factual questions here. The first is whether the film made $100 million. The second is whether adjusted for inflation that's $2.5 billion.

Let's look up Birth of a Nation.

So we already see that this is plausible from the Wikipedia result. But $100 million is the upper range, and the lower range is half that. So let's find out why there is that range vs. a single figure.

As we skim, we notice a couple things. If we're unaware of the film, we might be surprised to know what a big deal this film was.

It invented close-up shots, fade-outs. It was the first film to be watched in the White House. A film that glorified the Ku Klux Klan.

It was the inspiration for re-forming the Ku Klux Klan.

So here's the range. If we want to find what the reasoning behind that range is we have to click the footnote.

So here's the rub - rather than getting a cut of ticket sales, licenses to show the movie were given to -- not quite sure here -- state distributors? In any case, what this means is unlike today, how much the movie actually made was not tracked centrally.

If you click this link it will take you to the page in Google Books.

And here we go -- there's the cite.

(We can also see this book is not pubished by an unknown publisher but by Oxford University Press, a prominent publisher.

The film may have made $100 million. It may have also made a fifth of that. We don't really know exactly. But let's see what any of those figures look like with inflation.

To do that we have to go to WolframAlpha, an online math tool.

I've got the pro version installed here (my younger daughter uses it), but you can do this with the free one too. The phrasing is important -- we're looking for the value of 1915 dollars in 2019.

And what we find is the inflation number is correct. It's 2.5 billion. Even if it only made $50 million at the time that's over a billion today.

So what do we do with this? Again, I'd come back to the narrative. At the high end, Birth of a Nation made as much as Avengers: Endgame. But that figure is definitely at the high end of the range.

If we share this fact or cite it in an essay, it might be worth stating the range -- to say it made from somewhere from half a billion to 2.5 billion.

But we might also share what we learned during our investigation -- we're not quite sure if the film made $500 million or $2.5 billion, but the influence of the film was as big as anything we see today and influenced the direction of the film in the U.S. substantially.As this researcher of white supremacist history notes, the success of the film was even part of the reason the film industry centralized in Hollywood.

Again, gently add more precision to the numbers, but be aware the point can be bigger than any one fact. And in the end, a billion dollar film -- at the dawn of the film industry -- is a major financial success.