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- W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation appeared in 1915 to the outrage and dismay of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other supporters of black Americans’ citizenship rights. The film was an adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s novels The Clansman (1905)—the film’s original title—and, to a lesser extent, The Leopard’s Spots (1902), which, along with The Traitor (1907), formed Dixon’s self-consciously white supremacist trilogy. Following Dixon’s novels, the film advanced a relentlessly proslavery narrative of the slaveholding South, the Civil War, and especially Reconstruction. It depicted blacks either as simple and ignorant ciphers or as brutish fiends driven by compulsions to put on airs and accost white women. Abolitionists and whites aligned with the freedpeople after the Civil War appeared as irresponsibly naive, venal, or malevolent, motivated by greed or base desires to humiliate and destroy the South through the agency of black dupes. In this depiction, black enfranchisement was a travesty that enabled degenerate whites and incompetent blacks to dominate the formerly secessionist South’s governance and to impose a corrupt tyranny on the region’s whites.
The interpretation put forward in Dixon’s novels and Griffith’s film was propagated aggressively by southern elites during the years between their successful campaign to disfranchise blacks and many poor whites and the onset of the First World War. This interpretation became scholarly historical orthodoxy, in no small measure through the work of Columbia University historian William A. Dunning. Dunning’s book, Reconstruction, Political and Economic: 1865–1877 (1907), systematized the southern white supremacist view and gave it the appearance of academic objectivity. Instructively, epigraphs from the book are interspersed throughout the film, which stands as an epic cultural expression of the Dunning school’s line. In this regard, the film, along with Dixon’s novels, is also the direct lineal ancestor of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and the film adapted from it. In addition to striking structural parallels between the two films’ narratives, Mitchell had been an avid reader of Dixon’s novels, and he wrote her a gushing fan letter on her novel’s publication.
Birth of a Nation has been widely celebrated for its technical cinematic innovations. Griffith’s film is typically credited with pioneering use of such techniques as deep focus, the jump cut, and facial close-ups. Its large-scale battle scenes were also unprecedented. Its use of seemingly authentic daguerreotypes that shifted into live action also fed an illusion of historical accuracy. For these and other such accomplishments—as well, presumably, as its popularity at the box office (it was by far the highest grossing film of its era)—the American Film Institute lists Griffith’s melodrama as one of the most important films of the twentieth century. However, although the film’s technical achievements no doubt contributed to its visibility when it was released, its inflammatory politics are what generated the strongest reaction. Birth of a Nation’s opening provoked riots in many cities, as groups of whites were moved by the film, or took the occasion of its screening, to rampage against blacks. The film was banned in several other cities, including Chicago, and in the state of Ohio.
The film’s story line is a conventional, heavy-handed romance that is a thinly allegorical template for projecting southern elites’ vision of sectional reconciliation on explicitly white supremacist grounds. The plot follows two upper-status families—the northern Stonemans and the southern Camerons—from the late antebellum period through Reconstruction. The northern family’s patriarch is modeled to evoke Pennsylvania Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens; the southern family embodies the sympathetic stereotype of a planter class defined by grand manners and genteel paternalism. The families are linked socially before the Civil War, and one of the Stoneman sons falls in love with a Cameron daughter on a visit to the latter family’s antebellum plantation. However, the war divides the two families and disrupts the potential romance. Both families lose sons in the war, which also further entwines their fates. A Cameron son is wounded and captured in battle and, in a Union hospital, encounters and falls in love with Stoneman’s daughter, who is volunteering as a nurse. In this narrative love thus transcends and is disrupted by the sectional conflict, which brings the film’s first part to a close.
Establishment of the romantic story line drives Birth of a Nation’s first part. In the film’s second part, shown after an intermission, the romance becomes a platform for an equally sentimentalized narrative of the respectable white South’s suffering under Reconstruction. This account is a purely partisan fantasy of the years after the Civil War. Conniving and malcontented mulattoes aspire to reach above their station, ultimately through intermarriage. Ignorant and brutish blacks make a travesty of the exercise of government. They and their base white allies reduce patient, suffering upper-class white southerners to poverty and heap one indignity after another upon them. Tellingly, in Griffith’s narrative, having to extend the routine civilities of social etiquette to blacks, acknowledge their equal citizenship, and confront their unwanted sexual advances are interchangeable affronts, and the first two inevitably lead to the third.
The melodramatic story line feeds this linkage. In one of the film’s more incendiary sequences, Flora, the Cameron’s spirited but virginal daughter—whose very name identifies her as a flower of southern womanhood— is mortified by a proposal of marriage from Gus, a Union soldier and former slave. She flees hysterically with Gus in pursuit and leaps to her death to preserve her honor. Gus, whom Griffith describes as “a renegade, a product of the vicious doctrines spread by the carpetbaggers,” is captured and summarily lynched by the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan subsequently rides to the rescue of the beleaguered whites, rises to overthrow the Reconstruction tyranny, and forcibly disfranchises blacks. This resolves to a happy ending that unites the Cameron and Stoneman lovers and restores the natural social order to the South. Gus’s character was portrayed by a white actor in blackface, as were all the black characters who had physical contact with whites. Thus the film featured both black and white actors playing black characters.
Griffith’s melodrama, by grounding its Reconstruction narrative in the personal story of the Cameron and Stoneman families, conveniently sidesteps the potentially troublesome issue that disfranchisement violated black southerners’ constitutional rights under the Fifteenth Amendment. Just as the first part of the film’s depiction of the South Carolina plantation world gives no hint that slavery was fundamentally a system of coerced labor, the second part obscures the fact that the foundation of post–Civil War southern politics was a struggle between the freedpeople and their allies to craft a social order based on free labor and equal citizenship and the dominant planter class’s desire to restore a social and economic system as near as possible to the slave society that Union victory had destroyed.
Instead, Birth of a Nation propounds a view in which race is the single fulcrum of politics, the authentic basis of identity and allegiance. Such views were prevalent among Americans of all sorts during the early twentieth century, perhaps more so than at any other time before or since. Putatively scientific race theories purported to link human capacities, including the capacity for democratic government, hierarchically to racial classification. Several features of the social landscape at the time helped to give such views of the bases and significance of human difference presumptive credibility, particularly among opinionshaping elites. Upper-status reactions against labor and populist insurgencies fueled a political conservatism readily open to arguments that manifest social inequalities were rooted in immutable natural differences. Advocates of imperialist expansion also asserted unabashedly racial arguments, typically adducing an irrepressible AngloSaxon or Teutonic racial spirit for conquest, along with a racialized notion of American providential entitlement, to justify international adventurism in Latin America and the Pacific. Especially in the North and Pacific West, intensifying anxiety about increasing immigration from the margins of Europe and Asia further propelled racialist discourse, as race scientists and courts sought to determine whether immigrants originated from groups capable of assimilating to “American” civilization. Fears concerning immigrants’ dilution of nativist American cultural authority also contributed to a growing conviction among elites that voting and political participation should be seen not as a right but as a privilege, that fitness to vote should be proven, not assumed, and that the respectable classes are the natural stewards of the polity.
The political and ideological environment that took shape during that period also supported those tendencies within the national Republican Party and northern opinion that argued for retreat from aggressive support for the southern freedpeople’s rights and for sectional reconciliation on lines that favored the southern planter and merchant class. That sentiment underwrote the withdrawal of federal military occupation in 1877 and a shift in the courts’ willingness over the ensuing decades to protect blacks’ rights. In its ruling in the 1883 Civil Rights Cases, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the 1875 Civil Rights Act, and in its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling the Court legitimized legally imposed racial segregation, enunciating the infamous “separate but equal” doctrine. Residual northern liberal inclinations to defend southern blacks were further assuaged by Booker T. Washington’s emergence as a prominent voice of black acquiescence to white supremacy in the South and his endorsement of blacks’ expulsion from the region’s civic life.
Griffith’s film reflected and exploited this environment. In a clear effort to appeal to northern sensibilities, the film’s first part ends with a mournful depiction of the assassinated Abraham Lincoln as a kindly figure who would not have permitted the white South to be abused. The fabrication of Austin Stoneman as a stand-in for Thaddeus Stevens similarly rationalizes sectional reconciliation. The real Stevens never wavered in his Radical Republican convictions, to the point that he insisted on being buried in a black cemetery. Griffith’s fictional character, on the other hand, abjures his support of blacks’ rights once he is confronted by his mulatto protégé’s attempt to marry his daughter. The film’s message is clear: Decent northerners who had been abolitionists were misguided, and even the staunchest of them would come to see the need for white supremacy. This message drives the film’s climax. In building to the crescendo of the Klan’s rescue, the fleeing white victims are given refuge in a rude shack occupied by former Union soldiers who had remained in South Carolina after the war, living as modest yeomen. The northern men respond to the situation from the race loyalty that unites Americans from both sections, and they take up arms to fend off the pursuing black militia. This, then, is the definitively racial basis on which Birth of a Nation proposes sectional reconciliation. As Griffith narrates, “The former enemies of North and South are united again in common defence [sic] of their Aryan birthright.”
Instructively, the film quotes Woodrow Wilson, then president of the United States, explaining that “The white men were roused by mere instinct of self-preservation … until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South to protect the Southern country” (Wilson 1902, pp. 59–60). Wilson had been Thomas Dixon’s classmate at Johns Hopkins University and enjoyed a private screening of Birth of a Nation at the White House. Wilson embodied the victory of the white supremacist politics Birth of a Nation advocates. A native southerner, he was at different times president of Princeton University and governor of New Jersey, as well as president of both the American Political Science Association and the American Historical Association, as Dunning had been some years before him. Wilson’s scholarly writing and his public actions were shaped fundamentally by the race theories of the day and the presumptions of white supremacist ideology in particular. As president of Princeton, he sought to impose white-only admissions; as president of the United States, he more consequentially imposed full racial segregation on the District of Columbia and drove blacks from federal employment.
- Anderson, James. 1988. The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Dixon, Thomas. 1994. The Reconstruction Trilogy: The Leopard’s Spots; The Clansman; The Traitor. Newport Beach, CA: Noontide Press.
- Du Bois, W. E. B. 1935. Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880. New York: Russell & Russell.
- Dunning, William A. 1907. Reconstruction, Political and Economic, 1865–1877. New York and London: Harper and Brothers.
- Foner, Eric. 1988. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper & Row.
- Kousser, J. Morgan. 1974. The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880–1910. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press.
- Lofgren, Charles. 1988. The Plessy Case: A Legal-Historical Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Stein, Judith. 1973–1974. “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others”: The Political Economy of Racism in the United States. Science & Society 38 (4): 422–463.
- Storace, Patricia. 1991. Look Away, Dixie Land. New York Review of Books 38 (December 19): 24–37.
- Warren, Kenneth. 1993. Black and White Strangers: Race and American Literary Realism. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
- West, Michael Rudolph. 2006. The Education of Booker T. Washington: American Democracy and the Idea of Race Relations. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Wilson, Woodrow. 1902. Reunion and Nationalization. 5 of A History of the American People. New York: Harper and Brothers.
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