The Klan is Coming! The Klan is Coming!
The Birth of a Nation (1915), an epic silent film about the Civil War and Reconstruction, has a reputation as the most racist American movie ever made. Nolo contendere. The underlying theme is that the horrific war was tragically meaningless insofar as it was fought over slavery. The fate of the sub-humans was simply not worth all the carnage and its divisive political aftermath. After all, North and South were united as embattled Aryans, joined in a crusade for continuing racial hegemony. The promise of reunification and reconciliation in the long run hinged on this alliance. Indeed it worked out just this way, thanks to segregation and systemic racism!
As millions of white Americans flocked to the theatres, The Birth of a Nation became the biggest Hollywood blockbuster before Gone with the Wind, earning millions against large but ultimately trivial production costs of 100K. It was the first film shown at the White House, while Woodrow Wilson was President. Protests by African Americans were met by race riots in several cities. The NAACP unsuccessfully campaigned for a ban.
The Birth of a Nation also has a reputation as one of the most innovative American films ever made. As film critics have observed, one of the most disturbing things is how good it is – as art. Roger Ebert puts it well: “The Birth of a Nation is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like [Leni] Riefenstahl’s Freedom of the Will [which glorifies Nazism], it is a great film that argues for evil.”
Among the dazzling techniques introduced by The Birth of a Nation, techniques that became staples of American film: night photography; the use of natural settings; color tinting of black-and-white film; historically authentic costumes; panoramic battle scenes with hundreds of extras; multiple camera angles of the same scene; panning and high-angle shots, as well as still shots and “iris” dissolves (as if the camera were a closing eye); full-screen close-ups; parallel action and cross-cutting (I will return to this).
Directed by D. W. Griffith at the height of his Hollywood fame, The Birth of a Nation was based on the bestselling novels of Thomas Dixon, dean of the Plantation School of American Fiction. Dixon, who co-wrote the script and became a millionaire from his cut of the box office receipts, drew from The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905), both of which celebrate the Ku Klux Klan for its knightly defense of Southern values against former slaves, encouraged by brutal Northern occupiers to commit unspeakable depredations upon Southern culture and pure-bred Southern womanhood.
To escape a lecherous freedman, one Southern Belle leaps to her death from a precipice. Her pursuer is hunted down by the Ku Klux Klan, which finds him guilty in a kangaroo court, lynches him (though the usual castration is omitted), and his corpse is delivered to the mulatto elected lieutenant governor (named Silas Lynch!) by the Northern invaders. Lynch is of course a Yankee stooge – but a dangerous one, since he is psychotic.
That I’ve actually read these Dixon novels puts me in the literary equivalent of the .0001%. You don’t want to join this club; I’ve saved you risking any brain cells. So trust my capsule reviews: The Clansman is revolting, but The Leopard’s Spots is truly vile; the pages of both books are best turned with tongs. However, if you are looking for a truly amazing specimen of bare-nekkid racism, tarted up with pseudo-scientific gobbledy gook, and pimped out in a treacly Romantic prose style (Warning: lethal for diabetic readers), then you need look no farther than The Leopard’s Spots. All of this, plus blackface, carries over into the film.
For my purposes, we can skip the particulars, including the complicated plot and numerous characters, because I am concerned only with the reactions, under unusual circumstances, to a single scene, in which the Klan in full regalia rides to the rescue of a fair Northern damsel in dire distress.
For several years during the nineties, when Syracuse University offered a General Studies B.A. program at Auburn Correctional Facility, I taught courses in American literature. A typical class consisted of about a dozen men, half of them Afro, a quarter Euro, and the other quarter Latino. One year, in the adjoining classroom, a professor from SUNY Oswego was teaching a course in African-American history. On the day he was showing The Birth of a Nation to his students, he kindly invited my class to join his. The historian was the only one who had seen the film before.
The Birth of a Nation runs about three hours – there was an intermission when it was shown in theatres – and so it took a while to get to the scene in question, in which Lynch presses his marital suit on Elsie Stoneman (played by the movie’s star, Lillian Gish). In response to Elsie’s capture – she has courageously removed her gag, broken a window, and cried for help — the Klan assembles in force and rides to the rescue.
The charge of the Klan brigade is cross-cut with Elsie’s agony. While Elsie prays for divine intervention, she is more than happy to rely on the knights of the Klan, whose steeds are thundering to her aid. Griffith alternates between the Klan and Elsie. Will they get there in time? We see the horses, shot from the withers down, their muscles writhing and their hooves surging. Back and forth we go, hearts pounding faster than the Klan’s charge. Excitement builds and builds. The suspense is merciless, even though you know how it’s all going to turn out.
Remember, we were watching a silent movie silently. The emotional drama in the theatres was greatly intensified by the full orchestral score created expressly for the film, which was reduced to piano or organ arrangements in non-urban screenings. This scene was accompanied by “The Ride of the Valkyries” from Richard Wagner’s opera, the same music used ironically in Apocalypse Now for the chopper scene (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning”).
So what is the audience doing, there in a stark classroom in the Osborne Building, a school named in honor of Thomas Mott Osborne, the Auburn native and prison reformer who once admitted himself to the prison under cover (though everyone knew who he was) to get an inside look.
How are the students reacting, black, white, and brown alike?
Cheering their heads off for the Ku Klux Klan to get there in time!
The damndest thing I ever saw in forty-two years of teaching. I was cheering with them.
So what happened to Identity Politics? — the proposition that cultural experiences, which are determinative of a person’s worldview, are more or less incommensurable. You have to have been there to be there. Nothing really transcends the differences, including “human Nature” and also “art.” In theory, the reaction of the students was impossible. But there it was!
Why? I think what really happened is that we were cheering not for these particular rescuers but for the drama of the rescue itself. We were swept up by the art of the film, which was erasing ideology with every frame.
Is there “human nature” after all? If so, art has the power to bring it out.