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Summary & Analysis

The Clansman in Hollywood

On the evening of 8 February 1915, guests spilled into Clune's Broadway Theatre in Los Angeles, filling its 775-seat auditorium. The audience buzzed with anticipation, titillated by the promise of an extraordinary movie masterpiece, a cinematic experience more grand in scale than anything before seen. As the lights dimmed, the curtains lifted to reveal the projection screen, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic—a 70-piece symphony orchestra—delivered a thunderous introduction to the world premiere of director D. W. Griffith's new film, The Clansman.

The three-hour silent cinema epic thrilled viewers with electrifying performances, spectacular special effects, elaborate fight sequences, and, above all, its provocative story. Griffith presented moviegoers with a vivid interpretation of the Civil War and its aftermath, a tale of greed, corruption, violence, vengeance, and heroism. Based on a novel written by Thomas Dixon, Jr., Clansman portrayed Radical Reconstruction as a series of tragic events that devastated the South, divided families, and ultimately "put the white South under the heel of the black South."30 Unscrupulous blacks conspired to wrest power from southern whites by any means necessary—election fraud, bribery, armed violence, and the sexual pursuit of white women. But the film's hero, Ben Cameron, devised a plan to counter the threat of black supremacy and formed the Ku Klux Klan. The white-robed vigilante group galloping on horseback successfully purged the South of the "Black Menace" by disarming free black militias, prohibiting blacks from voting, and punishing lascivious men with the hangman's rope. A final subtitle marked the Klan's ultimate triumph and the conclusion of the film: "Liberty and union, one and inseparable, now and forever!"31

Despite vigorous protest from black groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the film opened nationwide within weeks of its West Coast premiere. Under a new, seemingly less offensive title, The Birth of a Nation, Griffith's feature screened in theaters throughout the country, including major movie houses in New York, Chicago, Atlantic City, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Boston. From coast to coast, it drew enthusiastic praise from white audiences, with viewers particularly moved by the climactic scene in which Klansmen prosecute and lynch "Gus," a black soldier accused of attempted rape. "It was like a call to arms," one white moviegoer recalled of his experience in the theater, "you just couldn't let go. You weren't watching people ride, you were riding with them and you weren't riding with them to rescue somebody but you were riding on a stern determination for vengeance."32

A Circus of Violence

On 28 April 1915, two months after the nationwide opening of Griffith's blockbuster motion picture, Thomas Brooks lost his life in Fayette County, Tennessee. In the early morning hours of that spring day, a white vigilante group hanged the black southerner and left his body to dangle from the rope. The public lynching had been advertised throughout the county; local newspapers and bulletins invited spectators to witness the event. Anticipating the affair, some employers excused workers from their morning activities and several local schools delayed the start of the day's lessons in order to allow pupils to see the lynched man.33 Thus, white townspeople came in droves. Gawkers from all throughout the county—men and women, some with children in tow—arrived to glimpse Brooks's corpse and, perhaps, to snatch a souvenir. "Hundreds of Kodaks clicked all morning at the scene of the lynching," The Crisis reported. "Picture card photographers installed a portable printing plant at the bridge and reaped a harvest in selling postcards showing a photograph of the lynched Negro."34

In 1915, alone, at least 56 African-Americans died at the hands of white lynch mobs, many tortured, burned, or maimed before being strangled by the hangman's rope. Some 60 black men and women were similarly murdered in 1916. In 1917, whites killed at least 36, but possibly more than 180 black Americans, and throughout the last years of the decade, approximately 200 (but, more likely, upwards of 400) became targets of this sort of brutal racial violence.35

Like the hanging of Thomas Brooks, many of these lynchings were elaborate public events, sometimes attracting thousands of spectators. Local papers often advertised the time and place of the executions, and white families—men, women, and children—from all parts of the region attended. The sites of these publicized slayings were often eerily circus-like. For instance, at the hanging of George Walton (referred to by local papers as a "one-legged darkey") in Oxford, Mississippi, vendors sold ice cream and lemonade to spectators.36 In May 1916, some 15,000 townspeople gathered in the courtyard in front of the City Hall in Waco, Texas. The crowd eagerly awaited the verdict in the trial of Jesse Washington, a mentally disabled 17-year-old black boy accused of killing a white woman. Despite scant evidence and a forced confession, the court found Washington guilty and sentenced the boy to death by hanging. Upon hearing the decision, a group of whites in the courtroom seized the defendant, beat him with shovels and bricks, stripped him naked and dragged him to the courtyard where the townspeople had prepared a bonfire. The thousands in attendance, including the police chief and the city's mayor, watched as the men drenched Washington, still alive, with coal oil, hoisted him by a chain into a tree and slowly lowered him into the fire. After the mob sliced fingers and toes from the corpse to distribute as souvenirs, they dumped the boy's remains in a sack and hung it from a pole for passers-by to view in the coming days. So sadistic was the murder that one white crowd member left distraught: "I am a white man, but today is one day that I am certainly sorry that I am one."37

The Power of Fiction

Photographs taken by reporters and revelers alike captured shock and distress, but more often than not, they also captured delight. These responses, in many ways, mirrored those shared by the millions of moviegoers who ultimately cheered the Klansmen portrayed in The Birth of a Nation. From coast to coast, white audiences praised a film that dehumanized its black characters and glorified its hooded protagonists as freedom fighters on a mission to protect whites from a vile and lecherous race of people. (It is no wonder, then, that the year 1915 also marked the rise of the new Ku Klux Klan, a national version of its early incarnation inspired in part by the imagery in Griffith's film.)

Disparaging, brutish caricatures of blacks were not new; throughout the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, demeaning black stereotypes were staples of mass culture. However, Griffith's propaganda film impacted all Americans on a scale far greater than had the work of any politician, author, historian, or filmmaker before. Most white Americans—including those living outside of the South—accepted Griffith's tale as historical truth. Even President Woodrow Wilson marveled at what appeared to him an authentic and poignant cinematic lesson. "It's like history writ with lightning!" the President declared after a private screening of the film at the White House. "My only regret is that it is all so terribly true."38

A Culture of Race

The Birth of a Nation is only the most significant example of the kinds of American pop culture phenomena that worked to strip blacks of their humanity during the Jim Crow era. The dissemination of such dehumanizing and incriminating images nationwide and even worldwide (the pro-Klan film was hugely popular in Germany and South Africa) had significant repercussions for black Americans. Racial stereotypes helped justify the exclusion of blacks from job and educational opportunities, from the polls, and from juries. They helped validate and sustain institutional segregation. And in the most extreme cases, this element of nineteenth and twentieth century popular culture helped the entire nation excuse, ignore, and advocate some of the most appalling crimes ever recorded in the United States—terrorism, arson, torture, dismemberment, sadism, and slaughter. "Some people were crying," William Walker recalled of his experience viewing The Birth of a Nation in a blacks-only theater in 1916. "You could hear people say, 'Oh, God' and some 'd--n'... You had the worst feeling in the world. You just felt like you were not counted, out of existence."39

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