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African Americans were concerned about race and racism in the motion picture industry from its inception. The negative portraits of blacks on film resulted from popularly held, romantic beliefs in the white community about blacks and black lifestyles as depicted in historical and contemporary literature and personal accounts about the old plantation and happy, faithful slaves. Film is a powerful medium, and any study of race and racism must examine the impact of negative motion picture images of blacks on the larger community, because images carry ideas, and in the social construction of race, ideas are of supreme importance.


The Progressive Era, which spawned the motion picture industry toward the beginning of the twentieth century, coincided with a period of great technological advancement that resulted in more leisure time for many urban people. The opportunity to provide recreation and entertainment for Americans became a significant endeavor. Late in the nineteenth century baseball had become a national pastime; vaudeville and blackface minstrelsy were popular forms of entertainment, as was ragtime music after the black pianist and composer Scott Joplin appeared in concert at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893; and the old and the young, black and white, working and middle classes enjoyed such leisurely activities as attending amusement parks and circuses. Eventually, however, going to the movies would be one of the most fascinating and popular forms of entertainment, and the images one saw created a lasting impression.

From the time that new technology made possible the creation of moving pictures and their projection on a screen, the images of African Americans on film were pejorative caricatures that presented them as lazy, stupid, happy-go-lucky, watermelon-eating, thieving “darkies.” For example, a few seconds of footage from an early Thomas Edison film (c. 1896) simply presented blacks as chicken thieves. Many of these early films had suggestive and derogatory titles such as The Wooing and Wedding of a Coon (1905) and A Nigger in a Woodpile (1904). Nevertheless, none had the same political or social impact as a single, racist, entertainment film that David Wark Griffith (known as D. W. Griffith) would make.

Filmmaker Griffith was born in Floydsfork (now Crestwood), Kentucky, in 1875. His father was a Confederate officer during the Civil War and was among the many politically disaffected whites who blamed Radical Reconstruction for their plight. Griffith grew up in an environment where white carpetbaggers (white Northerners who sided with blacks during Reconstruction) and scalawags (white Southerners who cooperated with both) were viewed with contempt and distrust. African Americans, especially in the South, were seen as inferior people who required the guiding hand of the civilized white man to prevent their further degeneration into uncontrollable savagery.

The historical and other literature of the time confirmed these racist beliefs for Griffith. As early as 1873, James S. Pike published The Prostrate State in which he denigrates black legislators elected during Reconstruction. Pike contends that they were ignorant and incompetent and were in power only through a conspiracy with President Ulysses S. Grant to punish white Southerners. Respected historians such as James Ford Rhodes and William Archibald Dunning accepted the view that blacks were inferior. In 1907 Dunning published a critical study on Radical Republicanism in the South titled Reconstruction in which he accuses blacks in state legislatures of being corrupt, irresponsible, and incapable of governing. Dunning, a professor at Columbia University, taught and mentored many white students from the South, who in turn published a variety of historical monographs that castigated the North for forcing Radical Reconstruction on the South and placing despicable, uneducated, and corrupt blacks in control of the political system. These studies formed what was called the Dunning school of Reconstruction interpretation, which became the standard and accepted view of Reconstruction for nearly half a century.

While this historical literature would provide Griffith with what he believed was a factual background for his views on blacks, his film was an adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s racist novel The Clansman (1905). This novel, along with The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Traitor (1907), comprised a trilogy that Dixon wrote romanticizing the Ku Klux Klan as the savior of whites in the South from bestial blacks who, unchecked, would eventually destroy white civilization through miscegenation. Dixon, a fervent racist and ordained minister, asserted that his novels were based on the truth, and they were advertised as such. These novels were very popular and had a significant impact in many white communities. White Americans in general believed that these powerful antiblack images were true, particularly that oversexed black men lusted for white women and that it was the duty of the Klan to protect their women. Ignored was the fact that at this time it was expected that white men would have sexual relations with their black domestics as a teenage rite of passage.

Indeed, from the 1880s forward black sexuality and white female virtue were at the center of the ghastly and barbaric practice of lynching. For white males, cross-racial sex was a mark of “manhood”; for black males, the same action mandated as gruesome a death as possible. Any cross-racial sexual encounter by black males was interpreted as “assault” or rape requiring vigilante vengeance, the intention of either party being irrelevant. The infamous Atlanta Race Riot of 1906 provides an example.

In September 1906 the Atlanta News published several editions detailing alleged violent sexual attacks against white women committed by blacks. Immediately, white mobs gathered and began to roam the streets beating and assaulting random blacks. A full-scale riot ensued that left twenty-five blacks and two whites dead. An investigation by a Northern journalist showed that a play based on Dixon’s novel, The Clansman , had been presented in Atlanta just prior to the riot and that it helped to exacerbate antiblack feeling among white Atlantans.


Most historians believe that Birth played a role in the reemergence of an even more powerful Klan after the film was released in 1915. William J. Simmons, a flamboyant white supremacist, chose the opening of the film in Atlanta, Georgia, to announce the rebirth of the new Klan. Simmons proclaimed himself the Imperial Wizard of the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. He cloaked the organization in the fabric of 100 percent Americanism and laid down the gauntlet to Jews, Catholics, niggers , and foreigners, saying that the Klan would do whatever was necessary to protect the American way of life. This meant, of course, that only white Anglo-Saxon Protestants would receive protection. Simmons would often parade around with several weapons to showcase his readiness to confront America’s enemies.

The release of the film occurred as thousands of blacks were migrating to the North, and it was easy to transfer the antiblack message in the film to Jews and Catholics and the hundreds of thousands of eastern and southern European immigrants who were coming to the United States. In fact, in Atlanta during the late summer of 1915, two weeks before Birth was shown, a mob of armed men lynched and mutilated the body of Leo Frank, a Jewish American, who had been tried and convicted, on specious evidence, of killing Mary Phagan, a thirteen-year-old white girl. Birth served to encourage this kind of mob mentality.

Insofar as blacks were concerned, Birth ‘s impact was pervasive. Threats of rioting were associated with its release, but some of the most destructive race riots in the nation’s history occurred in Northern cities only a few years later, in 1919. The film echoed America’s violent racial history, the roots of the Ku Klux Klan dating back to the late 1860s. From the beginning of the twentieth century to the 1920s, the Klan had grown from a few thousand members to well over 100,000, and continued to grow throughout the country, virtually controlling the state of Indiana in the 1930s. Ironically, the white terrorist organizations that emerged during Reconstruction after the Civil War were concerned only about the political restoration of the Old South. Organizations such as the Klan, the Knights of the White Camellia, the White Brotherhood, the Pale Faces, and others wanted to disrupt radical rule and redeem the South from the clutches of what they contended were incompetent blacks, Northern carpetbaggers, and traitorous scalawags. During the period from 1867 to 1871, terrorists in secret societies flogged, lynched, shot, and murdered Republicans and their black and white supporters. Finally, the escalating violence and near anarchy in the South compelled the U.S. Congress to pass the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which imposed heavy fines and jail sentences on those convicted in federal courts of terrorist acts. When President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew the last of the federal troops from the South in 1877, and the Southern Democrats gained control, participation in secret organizations began to decline. The Klan and other secret societies were never a major problem in the North until the Progressive Era.

The nascent National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which black and white progressives had created in 1909, organized one of its first biracial protests as a result of Birth .It published a pamphlet titled Fighting a Vicious Film: Protest against The Birth of a Nation , calling the film filth. The NAACP moved quickly to prevent the film from being shown in cities across the nation. Their protests resulted in the banning of the film in Chicago, Denver, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis and the editing out of some of the most offensive sequences, specifically, the attempted sexual assault scene and also scenes recommending that all blacks be shipped to Africa, when the film premiered in Boston. Much to the organization’s dismay, however, the NAACP’s response raised the issue of censorship, and this alienated the support of some progressives and liberals. In addition, the more the NAACP protested, the more publicity the film received and the more popular it became. In New York City, moviegoers bought more than three million tickets over several months to see the film. In Atlanta, thousands of Klansmen paraded through the streets to celebrate the opening of the film in 1915. By 1920, Birth had grossed more than $60 million. It was the first film treated as a major cultural event, with theaters charging an unprecedented two dollars per ticket.

Changing its tactics, the NAACP decided to make a film relating to the positive contributions of African Americans to American society. In 1915 Mary White Ovington, one of the founding members of the NAACP, approached Universal Studios about making the film. Universal was wary about undertaking such a controversial project, and because financial backing was minimal, the idea died. However, Booker T. Washington and his assistant Emmett J. Scott were also interested in making a film similar to what the NAACP had proposed. They wanted to make a film that would portray African Americans in a more positive manner from the Civil War through World War I. Scott organized and developed the project and John W. Noble and Rudolph De Cordova wrote and directed a film initially titled Lincoln’s Dream but eventually released as Birth of a Race (1918). What was to have been a short film turned into a much longer one that took more than three years to complete at a cost of approximately $500,000. The film was shot in Chicago, Illinois, New York, and Florida but inclement weather, inexperienced production crews, poorly designed sets, and financial problems hampered its completion. The final film was about three hours long but was reedited after an initial screening to sixty minutes. Race was neither a financial nor an artistic success when Scott released the film in 1919. Many blacks liked the film, but critics questioned the historical accuracy of the film and complained about its sexual content and violence. Scott had attempted, unsuccessfully, to replicate what Griffith had accomplished, but in a manner more favorable to blacks. It appears that a non-fiction film would have been more appropriate for what Scott wanted to achieve, but, unfortunately, the documentary format had not yet become a film genre.

While Race was not a successful film venture, it did encourage other African Americans to make their own films that would present blacks as normal human beings unlike the black caricatures so pervasive in Birth . In 1916 the Johnson brothers, George and Noble, founded the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, one of the first black film companies, and produced and released two films, The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition (1916) and Trooper of Troop K (1916). The Lincoln Company was short-lived and produced only a few films, but black film companies such as Ebony Pictures, The Birth of a Race Company, and others quickly joined the filmmaking fray.

In retrospect, the Johnson brothers may well have been more successful had they agreed to work on an Oscar Micheaux film project. Micheaux was an enterprising black entrepreneur and writer who started the Western Book Supply Company as an outlet to publish his books. George Johnson read one of his novels, The Homesteader (1917), which was about the difficulties of a black farmer and wanted to make a film based on the book. Micheaux agreed, but only if he could direct the film. In addition, he disagreed with Johnson about the location and length of the film, and the deal was never consummated. Micheaux returned to his home in Sioux City, South Dakota, and reorganized his company into the Micheaux Film and Book Company and, in time, would become the most important of the independent black filmmakers who made what became known as “race” films. Two of Micheaux’s best-known films, Within Our Gates (1920) and The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), as well as several of his other films, concern interracial marriage and sexual contact, lynching, and the Ku Klux Klan, but from a black perspective. These films directly challenge many of the views on blacks set forth in Birth .

One need not accept a single premise or theme in The Birth of a Nation to understand why it is one of the most important films in the history of cinema. It literally changed the way films were made. For good or bad, feature films with a message attempted to persuade the audience to accept a specific point of view, and Birth was the first film in this genre to have such a pervasive impact on American society. Unfortunately, it created black phenotypes and genotypes in film consisting of coons, toms, Mulattoes, mammies, and bucks that have persisted and that refuse to die easily. Even in the early twenty-first century, Birth generates heated discussion, much of it involving the balance between artistic creative freedom and social responsibility. The film gave the movies its technical vocabulary, but it also gave comfort to the racism that continues to besmirch America’s social life. In the meantime, Griffith died in 1948, having made and lost a fortune trying and failing to replicate the financial success of Birth . Two years earlier, Dixon had died a wealthy man from monies he made and kept as a result of his one-fourth financial interest in Birth .

Birth of a Nation, The. 1915 [next] [back] Birney, James Gillespie

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