The failure lies on the American people then as it does now in their inability to put the civil liberties of the marginalized over the freedom of white men to do whatever they please. For over 100 years, the highly transformative and effective tool of cinematography has been shamefully wielded by white supremacists to manipulate the mainstream white audience into harboring racist views against the African American community. Racism in the foundations of Hollywood has been disregarded and justified as artistic expression for as long as the possibility of black narratives to be accurately told has been suppressed to favor their own. By examining the first white supremacist propaganda film, Birth of a Nation, we see how a country built on the oppression of others has normalized the denigration of the already disenfranchised African American community by trivializing the real history of the south, whose actual events are very telling of an ugly history that has been willfully ignored. Since this revisionist history was unchallenged by the public, it was used for the revival of the previously disbanded white supremacist movement, the Ku Klux Klan, who continue to freely terrorize the marginalized today.
Since Hollywood’s very inception, the perspective of its storyline has been from the point of view of a glorified racist white man, who in some way or another oppresses a marginalized group. He is often celebrated for deeds that ought to be condemned but, because American history was written by the victors, the true antagonists are written with redemption arcs to prevail. What is most unfortunate is that a fight for better narrative from the disenfranchised has always been ignored, since their efforts undermine the whole white-people-are-the-best-humans agenda.
In 1915, the film adapted from Thomas Dixon Jr.’s feverish play, The Clansmen: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, was deliberately retitled to The Birth of a Nation, after positive reviews followed its initial release to white critics. D.W. Griffith’s innovative camera work, along with the ability to realistically capture the full range of emotions with powerful storytelling is what allowed the historically inaccurate feature length film to leave a lasting impression in American society. Understanding the true intentions of the filmmaker and the play that inspired it is important in realizing how significantly detrimental the film has been for the African American community, who continue to suffer from the film’s immoral message.
White supremacist and clergyman Thomas Dixon Jr. was so unhappy with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and its depiction of black life in the South, that his response in 1905 was The Clansmen, whose protagonist was an ex confederate soldier that is righteously turned into a masked white hooded vigilante after a deranged former slave, a part of the negro army takeover, drives his little sister off a cliff after a marriage proposal gone awry. According to Dixon, black people are all hideous, lazy, hypersexual, predatory, and criminal, only to be controlled by white supremacy.
The only black characters not demonized in the play were the “faithful souls.” These individuals happily acknowledged their lesser position in America as slaves, fighting against their own in favor of white supremacist rule.
From the perspective of a black human, the film is purposefully evil. Nearly fifty years after the end of the civil war and still mournful of the good ol’ Antebellum days, the proud son of a Confederate soldier, D.W. Griffith, happily used his filmmaking talent to produce white supremacist propaganda to further intensify the sentiment of white Americans towards maintaining racial segregation. By the end of his three hour civil war epic, the father of modern cinema strengthens the national argument for white supremacy by depicting the chattel slavery and terrorism done to blacks by white supremacists in the south as morally sound and unbiased.
Instead of appealing to the sensibilities of the newly formed NAACP and immediately censoring the film as racist propaganda, Griffith was hailed as a cinematic genius, one to be applauded for his creative storytelling. As further insult, his work inspired an entire industry that still uses the same cinematic techniques and racist narrative, as successful in the 2010’s as in the 1910’s, in securing moviegoer profits. It only goes to show that legality in America is a construct of power and not of justice. Birth of a Nation was hailed a modern technical marvel instead of being banned for its abhorrent display of white supremacist propaganda because it supported the agenda of the southern politicians in power, who were able to later enforce segregation on the entire nation. Subhuman blacks were used as a fictional backdrop for the delusions of a whiny white supremacist, who failed at suppressing an entire group of people with just his “Aryan Birthright,” to have an excuse to double-down on segregation.
When asked of his honest intentions for the play, The Clansmen, Thomas Dixon Jr. responded, as mentioned in the book A Vicious Play With Vicious Methods, by stating that he wishes to teach the people, especially the children of the United States, of the true history of the reconstruction period, “that white southerners were insulted, assaulted, robbed and disenfranchised, and that white girls and women were in constant danger of assault from colored men.(p.11)” He wanted to get rid of all blacks by sending them to a colonized nation elsewhere, an idea inspired from the abolitionist policies of Lincoln.
The true spirit that drove the Ku Ku Klan to murderous rampages during the Reconstruction Era was not because of the hypothetically dangerous blacks who posed a threat to their precious white daughters as advertised by Birth, they feared above all, that their claim to white supremacy would be undermined by the enfranchisement of freedpeople, who were only trying to survive the wreckage of war while establishing a life away from the trauma inflicted by heinous whites. Since black people could no longer be human capital for southern elites as per government request, ex confederate soldiers and plantation owners such as Dixon, rallied to restrict the earned freedoms of blacks, via disenfranchisement, so nothing got in the way of their divine right to supreme rule.
The initial small band of ex confederates in 1866, known as the Ku Klux Klan grew into a spiteful movement as white southerners in more states reigned terror on blacks and white republicans who assisted in establishing equality. Southern democrat Andrew Johnson was elected into office the same year, only aiding in the reestablishment of white supremacy by endorsing the terrorization of the Freedmen’s Bureau, who were successfully dismantled in 1872.
Originally known as the Bureau of Refugees, the supposed fearful black militia as featured in Birth of a Nation, was established in 1865 as a way for Congress to help former black slaves and poor whites recover from the aftermath of war. The bureau assisted in reuniting war torn black families, legal assistance, housing, medical aid(southern white doctors and nurses refused to help freed people during crisis), food, and education. Government funds to black programs in the south were subsequently slashed as Jim Crow laws were enforced, establishing segregation in many southern states to further intimidate blacks from voting. The Ku Klux Klan only disbanded as a domestic terror group after years of leniency from southern politicians in 1871, when republican Grant took office. Birth of a Nation was created by a white supremacist to diminish the real history of Black Americans during the civil war, and he succeeded in making White Americans nostalgic of a time where they were allowed to think of themselves as the superior race.
D.W. Griffith exploited the already inferior image of former enslaved Africans and their powerlessness in a system that only fought to suppress their rights. The poor southern racists that have been glorified and sympathized with in Griffiths false recollection of the Union Victory are provided with a sound redemption arc as they help in reuniting the war torn nation from savage blacks, scheming Mulattos, and crooked white northern politicians, who only freed blacks to give them seats to corrupt the state. Exploitation occurs when aspects of a subculture, in these terms, white imagined concepts of a black person, are commodified and marketed without the culture groups permission. Like a true American, D.W. Griffith remained ignorant to the destruction caused to the African American community while having complete power and privilege to change how he wanted to represent them to others.
Power was given to the racist message when moviegoers ignored the boycotting, protests, and letters to production heads from concerned black citizens, who attempted to ban the film even before its release. Freedom of racist speech versus truthful and humane filmmaking reflects on the those in power, the social consciousness of society, and which stories they allow to be told. When protests erupted in large US cities over the films screening after whites caused riots, Griffith responded by releasing pamphlets titled “The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America”, accusing Birth of a Nation critics of encroaching on his liberties as an artist, since he never thought of himself as a racist to begin with.
A new censor law in the city of Boston that prohibited the release of the film was a deliberate response to the demands of black citizens to ban the film. The NAACP branch in Boston responded
“We deplore the insidious influence of this play in the matter of its presentation, before audience whose judgement is misled by a most clever combination of spectacular and musical art- at a time when the world is only longing for peace. While deploying the decision of the board of censors, we congratulate ourselves on the great increase of interest in the cause of human rights-to use every effort to counteract the malign influence of this play through its legal suppression, and better acquaintance with the truth of our national history-we would especially emphasize the fact that this is not a matter involving the welfare of the colored race alone, but one in which all of the races composing our cosmopolitan citizenship have a vital interest.”
The propaganda delivers in such a powerfully convincing way, sensibly speaking to the rational white american about dangers of the black race, that audience members are too in awe of the theatrics involved in the film to notice the purposeful lack of humanity displayed in black characters. Griffith justified his hatred of blacks in America by elevating the racism in viewers through fake history and crude black face acting. The efforts to increase public awareness of the inconceivable harm being done against black community were silenced with cries of unfair censorship by the racist filmmaker. Proper dialogue was clearly never given to the American public about the dangers of glamorizing such an inherently flawed concept like racism.
As a staunch Southern segregationist, friend of Griffith, and former colleague to Dixon Jr., notable white supremacist, and 28th President Woodrow Wilson provided greater validity to the explicitly anti-black message by allowing it to be the first film ever to be shown in the White House. The historian Wilson was even quoted with saying after the film “It’s like writing history with lightning and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Ultimately, D.W. Griffith and Thomas Dixon Jr. were able to suppress the people who fought to ban the film through media influences and political connections, who only benefit from the narrow and divisive message.
Because the nation was built to only prioritize the rights of rich white men and their savagely run mega-corporations, white moviegoers ultimately saw nothing wrong with the explicitly anti-black message and chose to sanctimoniously vouch for the unearned humanity of Griffith by allowing him to thrive in a system put in place to keep minorities out. Birth of a Nation ran in theatres for 44 weeks and was viewed by over three million Americans. The profits of the film, an estimated $1.8 billion in today’s dollars, were only surpassed in much later years by Titanic(1997) and Avatar(2009).
The romanticization of the Old South in Griffith’s film revived the previously disbanded Ku Klux Klan, who appreciated the glorification of the white narrative and continue to use the film today as an effective recruitment tool. The second wave Klan grew to five million members during the early 1920’s as a paternalistic nativist movement amongst duped white americans, who were caught up in the melodramatics and went along with wave of hatred.
Only in recent years has more support been given to social justice movements aimed at the film industry, such as #MeToo, #OscarsSoWhite, and #TimesUp, from members who can no longer stand to have their humanity stripped away by those in power abusing their undeserved platform. As the nation unravels before us in these stressful and unprecedented times we watch industries full of individuals, who have built their legacies endorsing white supremacy make an effort to rebrand under the tense socio-political climate that has bred ignorance and misinformation for so long.
We are nowhere near close to ridding our country of the stain that is white supremacy, so it’s best if we could try to keep it off screens. A 2018 study on diversity in Hollywood conducted by the social science division in UCLA has reported the typical low numbers on all fronts when it comes to representation. Minorities make up only under 15% of hired Hollywood writers, directors, and producers.White actors are still being given the majority of roles vital for the screenplays progression, while the rest are relegated to small and unsubstantial roles that tend to lean on outdated racial gender biases.
Racism is still pervasive in mainstream American society and isn’t easily distinguishable without proper history and cultural understanding. Hollywood is responsible for preserving its legacy of white supremacy by continuing its discriminatory practices in a growing multicultural world. It was even Griffith who was the first to move his acting crew and studio productions to the lot we now know as Hollywood, inspired by its warm weather. Ultimately, the narrative of a white character who is inherently racist is what the industry profits off of, as it reflects in plot/characters it continues to regurgitate. I recommend revisiting popular blockbusters through a more racially sensitive frame of mind to better understand the reason for this divided nation. You’ll find that they have a lot in common with Griffiths fantasy world, where blacks happily place themselves in the backburner for the white character to prevail. By tarnishing the black image on screen, they are able to justify the oppressive treatment of real black people through the unapologetic white gaze. A stronger commitment to social justice and political awareness by a nation willing to confront its past transgressions is the best to hope for in efforts to deconstruct the biased attitudes that have wasted human potential for much too long.
“Grant, Reconstruction and the KKK.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/grant-kkk/.
Hunt, Darnell. “Hollywood Diversity Report.” Hollywood Diversity Report 2018, UCLA Social Sciences, 2018, socialsciences.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/UCLA-Hollywood-Diversity-Report-2018-2-27-18.pdf
History.com Staff. “Freedmen’s Bureau.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2010, www.history.com/topics/black-history/freedmens-bureau.
Janik, Rachel. “Birth of a Nation 100 Years Later: A Troublesome Legacy.” Time, Time, 8 Feb. 2015, time.com/3699084/100-years-birth-of-a-nation/.
NAACP. “Protests against Birth of a Nation.” Fighting a Vicious Film, Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/resource/rbc0001.2014gen01773/?sp=9.
“The Birth of a Nation (1915).” An Award-Winning, Unique Resource of Film Reference Material for Film Buffs and Others, with Reviews of Classic American-Hollywood Films, Academy Awards History, Film Posters., AMC FILMSITE, www.filmsite.org/birt.html.