Revisiting the revolutionary—and revolting—D. W. Griffith

This year marks the centennial of D. W. Griffith’s masterpiece, “The Birth of a Nation.” Who cares? Or who should? After all, it’s really only an embarrassing antique. Film historians have long extolled its artistic innovation as the foundation of the modern motion picture. Social historians have with equal enthusiasm decried its repulsive racist ideology. No arguing either point. As a silent film, running close to three hours in length, it’s scarcely likely to be shown to the general public again. And by this time the old discussions among historians and college students break little new ground. Everyone agrees: it’s great, and it’s revolting.

Yet there is something privileged about centennials. They invite us to recall Santayana’s oft-quoted warning about learning from the past to avoid repeating old mistakes. This year the convergence of events then and now is particularly striking. The actors change, but on many points the script remains distressingly similar. We need a bit of patience to unpack the multiple ironies of seemingly unrelated events of this centennial.

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On Jan. 7 of this year, gunmen in Paris killed 11 people because or their outrage at cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in Charlie Hebdo. As early as 2006 Muslims had expressed outrage at similar Danish cartoons. The editors in Paris surely knew their work was controversial, but since they were producing a satirical journal, they exercised their right to tweak political or religious figures at will. A few months later, on May 3 in Garland, Texas, two more people lost their lives in a shoot-out at a contest for the best Muhammad cartoon. In light of what transpired in Paris, the event would seem deliberately provocative and the result predictable. Not so, claims the sponsoring organization, the American Freedom Defense Initiative. The contest was just another affirmation of free speech. Other such contests and exhibits are planned in coming months. Should people die for cartoons? Should jihadist gunmen dictate the boundaries of artistic expression?

Rewind a century. In 1915, on the exact date of the Paris attacks, the U.S. Supreme Court was hearing arguments in Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, and on Feb. 23, the court issued its ruling, which established the principle that movies are “a business pure and simple,” and thus outside the free speech guarantees of the U.S. and Ohio constitutions. (The principle wasn’t overturned until Burstyn v. Wilson in 1952.) The court agreed unanimously that Ohio could continue to preview, censor and issue licenses for films shown within its boundaries. Earlier that week, on Jan. 2, “The Clansman,” had its sneak preview in Riverside, Calif., and on February 8, another showing in Los Angeles. On March 3, the film, now rechristened “The Birth of a Nation,” had its official premier in New York. As the reviews and commentaries appeared over the next few months, Mutual would provide the rationale for those groups like the NAACP attempting to block distribution of the film.

Sincere, But Obtuse

D. W. Griffith claimed to be stunned by the denunciations of his film by the press, and by churches and civic organizations. He was probably sincere, but unspeakably obtuse. In his view he was merely presenting a fictionalized version of history as he understood it, as did a number of other people then, and as probably a good many do even now. He conceived of a film in two acts. The first showed events leading up to secession, the war itself, and the assassination of Lincoln. His sanitized version of plantation life with its refined gentry and carefree, loyal slaves, mostly white actors clownishly grinning in blackface, is at best naïve, but is probably the narrative that he learned in his youth as a Kentucky farmer and son of Roarin’ Jake Griffith, a former Confederate officer.

Griffith had covered this material before, but without protest. In his 1911 film, “His Trust: The Faithful Devotion of an Old Negro Servant,” Griffith related the story of a landowner who goes off to war and entrusts his family to an elderly slave. Shortly after the officer returns, the family cabin burns down and the slave—now reluctantly emancipated—loses his own life rescuing the mother and children. Like many of his day, Griffith would reject any allegation of bigotry, asserting that he had the utmost respect for “the Negro,” as long as he kept to his place, which of course meant subservience. That was surely the message of “His Trust.” In “Birth” he affectionately refers to the family servants as “faithful souls.”

As Part II unwinds, so does Griffith’s claim of magnanimity. After the death of Lincoln, Republican Abolitionists, the Carpetbaggers, rush to the former Confederacy, and join with local scalawags, to “put the white South under the heel of the black South,” as the intertitle explains in a quotation attributed to Woodrow Wilson. The portrayal of black people veers from comical to sinister. A sequence purportedly showing a session of the South Carolina legislature shows black representatives eating chicken, drinking whiskey and passing laws to permit interracial marriage, the ultimate abomination to Griffith and his kind. His Union army enforcing Reconstruction consists mainly of black soldiers out to pillage property and disenfranchise white voters. Gus, a black sergeant, pursues the young sister of a Confederate veteran, but she jumps to her death to preserve her honor. (Actually, this scene is milder than the action in Thomas Dixon’s novel, The Clansman. In Dixon’s version, a crazed black militia breaks into the cabin where the girl and her mother cower in fear. They gang-rape both, and the next morning mother and daughter leap from a cliff, hand in hand in their shame.)

Where Griffith goes clearly over the line in adapting Dixon’s odious novel was his glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. White manhood, consisting mainly of Confederate veterans, has no choice but to defend its property, its honor and its womenfolk through violence and intimidation. It is a noble cause that restores order—that is, white supremacy—and reunites the nation. In an early version, Griffith actually had freed slaves boarding ships to go back to Africa. Somehow he was persuaded to opt for a more benign and pious ending. Christ looks down upon the nation, now reunited through the efforts of patriotic citizens, like the Klansmen, as it fulfills its divine destiny. Is such a narrative hate speech, or simply one man’s misguided version of history, which he has every right to voice?

A Southern Strategy

Griffith was not alone in his understanding of Reconstruction as the hostile occupation of sovereign states by the Federal government. President Wilson, a history professor at Princeton before he turned to politics, allegedly summarized his own reaction to “Birth” by commenting that it was “history written in lightening, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Even if the citation is not verifiable, it certainly reflects Wilson’s stormy relationship with the African-American leadership of the time. But Wilson’s involvement with the film itself is more complex than the occasional citation of his academic work in Griffith’s intertitles. Wilson, although elected governor of New Jersey, was born in Virginia and raised in Georgia and South Carolina. While doing his doctorate at Johns Hopkins, he befriended Thomas Dixon, who after and unsuccessful career as a minister, wrote the two novels, The Clansman and The Leopard’s Spots, that formed the basis for the script for “Birth.” Dixon scored a public relations coup when he contacted his old friend, now president, and arranged a private screening at the White House on Feb. 18. Dixon got the famous quotation he wanted for the ad campaign, but, it seems, he had a wider purpose than publicity. He confided that his and Griffith’s portrayal of the hypocritical Abolitionist Republicans would help turn Southern states Democratic. His analysis was flawless. The states of the Confederacy became the solidly Democratic and segregationist until Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights legislation and Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” completely reversed the pattern.

More than political polarization was involved. Because of Mutual “Birth” became vulnerable to attacks from local authorities and organizations. The main issue raised by opponents to the film had little to do with First Amendment rights, as some might assume today, but public safety. The fear was not that outrage would incite African-Americans to riot, but that the film would encourage certain segments of white society to acts of violence against blacks. This was not overly cautious. Several incidents were reported as a direct result of the screening, but more notably, “Birth” proved a most effective recruiting tool for the Klan. Within the subsequent ten years, the numbers of the Klan, on the wane since the end of Reconstruction, soared to an estimated four million.

Films, like cartoons, do not exist in a social vacuum. Then as now, the social climate was highly unstable. In the decades following the Civil War, immigration, industrialization and urbanization changed the texture of American life. Jim Crow laws and systematic violence, much like that in the film, made life intolerable for many black people, and by 1910 the “Great Migration” of over six million African Americans headed north in search of jobs and a better life. Black communities developed in areas that had never hosted them before, and so did the backlash. The de facto segregation of the North may have been less brutal than the Southern version, but it existed all the same. A foreign war had broken out the previous year. No end to it could be seen, and the United States could be drawn in. It would not take much to ignite this social tinderbox.

So a century has passed. Another unpredictable war is raging on the other side of the world. Another great migration is taking place, this one from Latin America, south Asia and the Arab world. The times are surely unsettling to many Americans. Uncertainty gives rise to fear, which in turn leads to intolerance and the compromise of civil liberties. Does history hold lessons for us? I hope so. The shooters in Paris and Texas took criminal means to oppose a perceived insult, that much is clear. While we in the West try to comprehend their actions and take appropriate means to protect our own citizens, we should recall that the Klan and those who approved of their repressive agenda became as evil as the criminals they condemned. Abuses and crime surely flourished in the Reconstruction period, but the Klan was not the solution, nor was Jim Crow. Likewise, the threat posed by jihadist fanatics today is real, surely, but ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad or vilifying Islam as terrorist by nature does little to protect the values of Western civilization. Provoking extremists leads not only to predictable acts of violence, but it begins a cycle of repression that makes victims of the innocent as well as the fanatics. Without a doubt, artists in popular media, like cartoonists or filmmakers, have the freedom to express themselves, but it’s good to recall that free speech also involves their freedom to keep quiet.

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Frank Gibbons
2 years 6 months ago
I recommend the neglected "Stars in My Crown" directed by Jacques Tourneur and released in 1950. It takes place after the Civil War and the Klan are causing trouble. Joel McCrea plays a minister who eventually takes the wind out of the Klansmen's sheets. This is the ultimate family movie and it is idealistic but Tourneur creates some dazzling cinema as he did in "The Cat People" and in the noir classic "Out of the Past". The story goes that he wanted to do "Stars in My Crown" so badly that he took a big cut in salary. This move plagued him as the studio honchos kept Tourneur's salary on future directorial efforts at this low watermark.

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