butters, African-Amer. Cinema and Birth of a Nation

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Unformatted text preview: 62 BLACK MANHOOD ON THE SILENT SCREEN the past. Such faithful African—American compatriots seemed not to exist in the modern era. Between 1896 and 1915, the majority of American films depicting African-American masculinity confined black men to a narrow frame of ref- erence. They were not part of an “unformed image” but reflected a tradi‘ tion of literature, vaudeville, and popular culture that relegated them to a position of inferiority, degradation, or indolence.“ In most instances, African-American men were not even worthy enough to play themselves on the screen; it was necessary for white men to depict them. Anyone watching a large body of early silent films would assume that all black men ate water— melon and stole chickens and in their spare time played craps and danced; black babies were worthless, black women were wenches, and the black fam— ily was nonexistent. According to early silent film, the white master’s family was the only family that African Americans had. Black men were shot at, hung, eaten by alligators, bucked by donkeys, and beaten. Black men were always afraid (except when saving white families) and black romance was simply a joke. There were definite ruptures in early film (taken from real life) that threatened this unformed image but these ruptures were either legis- lated away, such as lack Johnson’s triumph over white boxers, or ignored, as with African Americans participating in the military. The majority of silent films made between 1896 and 1915 were produced by northern-based urban companies. These motion picture studios not only aptly illustrated northern racism toward African Americans but much of the racial ideology of Conservative and Radical southerners. David Wark Griffith’s infamous The Birth of a Nation crystallized all of the worst stereotypes of African-American masculinity into a vicious diatribe of hatred illustrating the excesses of northern and southern racism. The Afi'ican- American community had been aware of the powerfully negative cinematic imagery of themselves displayed on the screen and had protested against it sporadically. The Birth of a Nation would unite the African-American com- munity against the film. The protest against the film included a call for cen‘ sorship. Some African Americans would respond by creating their own films—the true renaissance of African-American filmmaking in this nation. 4 AFRICAN-AMERICAN CINEMA AND THE BIRTH OFA NATION Chicken-stealing, irresponsible, crap-shooting, lazy, watermelon-eating, tor- tured, dancing servants—this was the dominant imagery that African-Amer- ican men saw of themselves on the screen when they were even allowed in movie theaters. This was the imagery that African-American men critically, economically, and artistically reacted to by beginning their own motion pic- ture production in the 19103.'Black filmmaking was a reaction against this imagery but it was also an attempt by African-American men to reclaim their manhood: What black men saw on the screen did not reflect reality; it was an attack on African-American culture. Black men reacted to this imagery by reshaping images of themselves on the screen that reflected either reality or a more positive, even idealistic, view of black manhood. Kevin Gaines has ar- gued, “Mass—media technologies and industries provided new, more power- ful ways of telling the same old stories of black deviance and pathology. . . . It should be noted, however, that at the same time mass-culture industries provided opportunities for black cultural production, the construction, or reconstruction of black consciousness, and fiirther struggle and contestation over representations of race.”1 This desire and need to counter the negative cinematic imagery of African Americans became more critical following the release of The Birth 0ft; Nu- tion. The film was a tremendous catalyst to black filmmaking, demonstrating the political and societal need for more realistic cinematic representations of black people. The Birth of a Nation demonstrated to American society, African Americans in particular, the powerful influence of the new medium. The Birth of a Nation was a milestone in the history of the cinema. The film became a cause célebre, a topic on the tongues of politicians, moviegoers, and social workers. The film illustrated the pervasive power that motion pictures could have on the American social conscience. The film was based on two 63 64 BLACK MANHOOD ON THE SILENT SCREEN of Thomas W. Dixon’s novels—The Leopard ’5 Spot: (1901) and The Clan:- mun (1903). Born in the midst of the Civil War, Dixon was eight years old when he accompanied his uncle to the state legislature in South Carolina, where he saw “ninety-four Negroes, seven native scalawags [white South Carolina Republicans] and twenty—three white men [presumably carpetbag- gers from the North].”2 This familial distortion ofhistory was to have a pro- found impression on young Dixon. He was raised in an environment where African Americans were viewed as inherently inferior and not to be trusted. After working as an actor, clergyman, essayist, and lecturer, Dixon found his life work after hearing the Reverend John D. Fulton speak in Boston on “The Southern Problem” (by which Fulton meant the inability of the South to run its own government). ' Outraged at Fulton’s derogatory remarks against the South, he interrupted the minister halfway through the lecture to denounce his remarks as “false and biased.”3 Dixon’s main purpose in life became the desire to “set the record straight” regarding Reconstruction.4 He became one of the best known and most vocal southern Radicals in the early twentieth century. Dixon consequently turned to fiction to spread his message. His first novel, The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’: Burden, was an attempt to answer Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.5 Whereas Stowe’s novel attempted to show the nation the cruelties of slavery, Dixon attempted to demonstrate to the country the horrible an— guish that southern white men suffered during the Reconstruction period. Stowe used her villain Simon Legree to illustrate the exploitation of blacks in a physical sense. Dixon took a character from Stowe’s novel, a freed black slave, and transformed him into a graduate of Harvard who overreaches his societal boundaries when he asks to marry the daughter ofa white defender of the Negro cause. Dixon’s novel was an instantaneous success, selling over one hundred thousand copies in its first three months of publication.6 The Leopard’: Spots established Dixon as an “expert” on southern life and Reconstruction. He believed there was an evolutionary gap between the black and white races and that racial peace could occur only with complete separation of the races. Dixon’s nightmare was miscegenation, which he be- lieved would lead to the mongrelization of the white race. Dixon believed that African colonization was the only hope; all freed slaves must be re— turned to their ancestral homeland. Dixon also despised the treatment that the North gave the South during Reconstruction.7 The success of The Leopard’: Spots led to a constant demand for Dixon as a lecturer and writer. Tall and commanding, he preached his diatribe on AFRICAN-AMERICAN CINEMA AND THE BIRTH OF A NATION 65 race, Reconstruction, and the southern way of life across the nation. Out- side the South, Dixon had to tone down his aversion toward northerners and immigrants, stressing instead his fear of freed, politicized black men. Dixon told audiences, “My object is to teach the north, the young north, what it has never known—the awful suffering of the white man during the dreadful reconstruction period. I believe that almighty God has anointed the white men of the South by their suffering . . . to demonstrate to the world that the white man must and shall be supreme.”8 ’ Within a few years Dixon completed his second and most famous novel, The Clanmmn: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. The Clunsman was a reworking and expansion of The Leopard’s Spots, with a heavier stress on the heroics of the Ku Klux Klan and a vicious attack on Dixon’s béte noir, Thaddeus Stevens, a leader of the Radical Republicans. In this book, Stevens is portrayed as a despicable character who lives with a mulatto mistress, con- trary to most historical accounts. In the novel, he cast the Ku Klux Klan in a heroic role because they supposedly returned AfricanAAmerican men to their natural place of inferiority. The Clansman sold over one million copies, and its great success caused Dixon to consider its possibilities as a drama.9 In 1905, Dixon converted The Clunrman into a play that toured widely in the Midwest and the South.10 David Wark Griffith was also a product of the South. Like Dixon, he spent his childhood listening to tales of heroic sacrifices by Confederate sol- diers and misdeeds and misconduct by scalawags, carpetbaggers, and, most of all, blacks. Griffith’s view of the South was idealized, one based on “fam- ily mythology and a romantic literary and historical tradition.”ll Griffith’s father actually served in a limited capacity in the war and grossly overdra- matized his own contributions to the war effort (perhaps to counter his al- most complete lack of financial support for his family). What was established in Griffith’s mind was a white patriarchal ideal, a world in which white men protected white women and where African Americans stayed in their inferior place. By 1914 Griffith was one of America’s premier film directors. During his tenure at Biograph he directed hundreds of films, most of them traditional melodramas. The Civil War served as a backdrop for many of these films. In virtually all of the war films, a white male hero saves his family, girl, or nation in a time of crisis. Griffith and Dixon arranged to collaborate on filming The Clummem in 1914. Dixon recognized the potential of working in the new medium of motion pictures. He said: “The Whole problem of swift universal education of public opinion is thus solved by this invention. Civilization will ..-n_un ‘0' nAm—t H. new...” v *"F‘ZW» éWW@%W-Mt~imaa:§nuu a . e 66 BLACK MANHOOD ON THE SILENT SCREEN be saved if we can stir and teach the slumbering millions behind the politi- cian. By this device we can reach them. We can make them see things hap— pen before their eyes until they cry in anguish. We can teach them the true living history of the race. Its scenes will be vivid realities, not cold works on printed pages, but scenes wet with tears and winged with hope.”12 The actual scenario of the film, based on Dixon’s stage versions of The Clunsman and The Leopard ’5 Spots, was written by Griffith and Frank Woods. The traditional interpretation of the “origin” of the film is that Griffith was its “author,” relying less on Dixon’s novels than on his own childhood sto- ries and research. Jeffrey Martin has argued that The Birth of a Natirm bor- rows heavily from Dixon’s plays and was changed only in the sense that Griffith took Dixon’s theatrical treatment and filmed it in a more cinematic manner. Thus, The Birth of a Nation is actually a much closer adaptation of Dixon’s novels than film historians had previously thought. This illustrates the cinematic transmission of Dixon’s racist ideology directly into the film.13 The impact of The Birth of a Nation on American filmmaking cannot be overestimated. It became a critical stimulus in persuading dozens of African- American men of the absolute necessity of creating cinematic versions of themselves. The Birth of a Nation, in a sense, set the stage for a generation of cinematic portrayals of African-American men. African-American film.- makers fought strongly to counter its derogatory images.}4 White filmmak- ers were afraid of being called racist (which haunted Griffith to his grave) so they often eliminated or modified African-American male portrayals. Prior to The Birth of a Nation, white filmmakers seemed politically unconcerned with their portrayals of African-American men on the screen. The intense furor over the movie, which resulted in censorship, demonstrations, and race riots, awakened white directors to the “danger” of blatantly racist portrayals of African Americans. Following 1915, the number of black male portrayals in mainstream white productions dropped significantly. African—American men were much less frequently cast in major roles (even when they were portrayed by white actors in blackface). Through the 19203, African-Amer- ican men tended to serve as props or scenery in studio productions. As Man— thia Diawara argues, “The Birth of a Nation constitutes the grammar book for Hollywood’s representation of Black manhood. . . . White people must occupy the center, leaving Black people with only one choice—to exist in re- lation to Whiteness.”15 A detailed analysis of the film is necessary in order to view the ways in which Griffith constructed racialized identity and to understand the specific images African Americans were acting against. Clyde Taylor claims that AFRICAN-AMERICAN CINEMA AND THE BIRTH OF A NATION 67 “mainstream cinema scholars and aestheticians . . . have kept the race issue at arm’s length from their exploration of the film’s technique?“ I hope to alleviate part of this problem by analyzing the “production of meaning.” )1 From the opening credits, Griffith makes it quite apparent that this story will be told in racialized terms. Of the leading characters, the three key African-American figures are described and defined in the credits by their race. Lydia is Stoneman’s “Mulatto” housekeeper. Gus is a renegade “Negro.” The pivotal white characters are described by their family relation- ship or by their profession. Therefore, African-American blood implies dif- ference; white Americans are not defined racially since they are the “norm.” A number of film historians have illustrated the difference between Griff- ith’s and Dixon’s racial mentalities by using Williamson-like divisions to apologize for Griffith’s “subtle” racism and to substantiate his genius. No doubt, Thomas Dixon is within the Radical camp; his rabid attacks on “up- pity” African-American men and their lust for white women illustrated his support for African-American deportation to Africa. Griffith is usually placed in the “Conservative” camp; film scholars argue that his racist ideology was not as extreme as that of Dixon.l7 Apologist film scholars focus on Griffith’s “genius” or discuss the “unconsciousness” of his racism.18 The opening scene illustrates Griffith’s vision of the “place” of African Americans in society. The title reads: “The bringing of the African to Amer- ica planted the first seeds of disunion.” The establishing shot shows African slaves looking purposefully subservient to a man dressed in colonial garb. Through this opening title, Griffith is clearly arguing two of the major tenets of the Radical southerner’s vision of race. First, he blames the disunion in fact, the entire Civil War conflict, on the presence of African Americans. Thus, the victims become the conspirators, the individuals guilty for bring- ing on the bloodiest war the nation had ever witnessed. Second, Griffith ar- gues that African Americans have no place in American society; their very presence can disrupt a nation and tear it apart. Thus, as Vincent Rocchio ar- gues, The Birth of a Nation does not begin with the introduction of main characters but with an overt historical thesis.” The second scene confuses the racial issue. The title reads: “The abolition- ists of the nineteenth century demanding the freeng ofthe slaves.” The scene shows a group of white abolitionists listening to a minister preach on the evils of slavery. The minister repeatedly points to an African—American man below him. The next shot shows a white man with his hands on the back of a twelve- year-old slave boy. An iris is placed around the two figures, cutting them off from the rest of the action. These scenes illustrate white paternalism over the .‘cn'u‘l fla- mu.“ AkC.‘ 23.15:...334.‘ r... . 70 BLACK MANHOOD ON THE SILENT SCREEN are never crossed (which completely denies the rape of thousands of black women in the South). In the North, where racial lines ofdemarcation were not clearly drawn, danger lurks everywhere. This is doubly true in the case 'of Lydia. Her mongrel ancesz makes her look wild—eyed and power hungry, an obvious example of the biological disaster that miscegenation can bring. In Griffith’s patriarchal ideology, clearly defined racial roles have to exist for a so- ciety to survive. The impending Civil War puts an end to the Stonemans’ visit to the Cameron plantation. Griffith inserts the first of several historical facsimiles at this point in the film—Abraham Lincoln signs a proclamation calling for 75,000 volunteers for the war effort. The use of facsimiles and quotations from popularized histories of the day is an attempt to make the film appear authentic. Griffith personally felt that the Civil War and Reconstruction pe- riod had never been told through a truly southern (read “accurate”) per- spective. He claimed, “I felt driven to tell the story—the truth about the South, touched by its eternal romance I had learned to know so well.”23 In The Birth of a Nation, Griffith attempts to combine a personalized roman- tic account of the era with a sense of historical realism. He succinctly used historical facsimiles to reinforce his own vision of events. The southern cause is portrayed as valiant and confident whereas north— ern mobilization appears dreary and dutiful. Both the Stonemans and the Camerons say farewell to the sons of the family as they volunteer to do their patriotic duty. Griffith vibrantly illustrates the glamour of southern gallantry. A grand ball is held in the Piedmont home of the Camerons after the First Battle of Bull Run. Men are handsomely dressed in their military uniforms and southern women parade in their finest. Bonfire celebrations are held in the streets. At daybreak, the southern troops depart for battle. Large crowds of southerners come out to greet them, including many African Americans (actual and blackface). At the Stoneman home, things are much more sub- dued. A blackfaced actor (with grotesque pancake makeup around his mouth) escorts Elsie to tell Stoneman that his sons are off to battle. The cel- ebratory nature of southern pageantry is missing; so is the close personal re— lationship between parent and child. Throughout the first third of the film, with slavery Still in existence in the South and without the turbulence the Civil War would bring to the North, racial relations are seemingly static. All African—American male portrayals are passive and accommodating. When Piedmont is threatened by the war, this scheme of racial representation changes. A title reads: “An irregular [mean- ing racially mixed?] force of guerillas raid the town.” Griffith points out that AFRICAN-AMERICAN CINEMA AND THE BIRTH OFA NATION 71 the first Negro regiments were raised in South Carolina (to give historical credence to the racial “threat”). There is chaos in the streets. The Cameron women are away from home and are desperate to return. The northern troops enter the town like monsters. They shoot down innocent citizens in the streets. In one of the most telling racialized scenes of the film, three African-American soldiers approach the Cameron front door. They move in an animalistic fashion as they carefully watch their backs. The Afiican-Amer- ican man who is in full frontal view of the spectator is half-dressed. He looks suspiciously around as he holds his rifle. The sexualized implication is not lost on the viewer: Griffith’s racial depiction is clear; this half-dressed black animal is going to use force to enter the home where the white women have just entered. They break into the house and are confronted by old man Cameron. He orders them out, but the scalawag white captain demands that the three recruits obey his orders. The house is then overturned. Old man Cameron is shot and the soldiers scurry around the home like animals searching for food. They loot the Cameron’s home and are purely malicious. The Cameron women hide in the cellar. Suddenly a “company” of Confed- erate troopers are informed of the raid. The Union irregulars set fire to the Cameron home but the Confederate troops arrive just in time to extinguish it. As Vincent Rocchio points out, this scene is short “but carries a high de- gree of narrative significance.” It is a nightmare image of out—of-control blacks who threaten home, hearth, womanhood, and southern sanctity.24 The violence and horrors of the war are then illustrated by Griffith in a se- ries of spectacular battle scenes. Both the Cameron and the Stoneman fami- lies lose sons in the war but the Camerons have it much worse. They have to sell their last possessions to make ends meet. The remaining women have nothing left to eat but parched corn. War is the breeder of hate, according to Griffith. However, just as the picture sinks into despair, a romance is kin- dled between Elsie Stoneman and the “Little Colonel” of the Cameron clan. She visits him in a hospital, not realizing that he has carried a picture of her that her brother gave him long ago. Mrs. Cameron comes to the military hospital where her son is a prisoner. She vows to enter even if she is shot and Elsie intercedes. She finds her son doing well but she also discovers he is going to be hung for treason. Elsie and Mrs. Cameron go to Abraham Lin- coln’s office and successfully beg a pardon from the great president. Griffith’s rewriting of history includes a saintly portrait of Abraham Lin- coln. After a historical facsimile of the surrender at Appomattox, Lincoln proposes an easy readmittance of the South back into the Union. Stoneman and the Radical Republicans go to Lincoln to protest. Stoneman demands, .w.fia_~ .h 'L._-‘ aw-“ <no.‘-n~‘ . .._. .. .c. gnaw “V 72 BLACK MANHOOD ON THE SILENT SCREEN “Their leaders must be hung and the states treated as conquered provinces.” Lincoln humbly responds, “I shall deal with them as if they had never been away.” As a Radical Republican, Stoneman becomes one of the most, pow— erful leaders in America. When the Camerons read of Lincoln’s death, they ask themselves, “What is to become of us now?” The second half of the film presents African-American male figures that are far more threatening to the social ideals of the period. In the second half of the film Griffith began to draw more heavily on material directly covered in Dixon’s theatrical version of The Clmmmm. The opening title of the sec- ond half reads: “Reconstruction: the agony which the nation endured that a nation might be born. The blight of war does not end.” Following ram— pant criticism of the film and threats ofcensorship, Griffith later added a sec- ond title at this point: “This is an historical representation of the Civil War and Reconstruction Period and is not meant to reflect on any race or peo- ple of today.” Griffith’s prologue to the second half is quite lengthy. He takes an exten- sive excerpt from then current president and fellow southerner Woodrow Wilson’s Hirtory of the American People: “Adventurers swarmed out of the north, as much the enemies of one race as of the other, to cozen, to beguile and use the negroes. . . . in the villages the negroes were the office holders, men who knew none of the uses of authority, except its insolences. . . . the policy of the congressional leaders wrought . . . a veritable overthrow of civ- ilization in the South . . . in their determination to put the white south under the heel of the black south.” Griffith attempts to lend both historical and po- litical credibility to his cinematic vision by quoting Wilson. But the message is decidedly mixed. African Americans are claimed to be ignorant, senseless human beings, simply manipulated and used by northerners. Yet Griffith demonstrates that African—American aggression is responsible for white southern suffering. The corruption of Radical Republican politicians and their manipulation of race is displayed. Stoneman is the uncrowned king of Washington. His mulatto mistress is now the courtesan of his parlor. Stoneman’s protégé, Silas Lynch, is the mulatto leader of the blacks. Lynch enters Stoneman’s of- fice and in deference to the mentor bends to kiss his ring. Stoneman repri- mands him, “Don’t scrape to me. You are the equal of any man here.” The next title reads: “The great radical delivers the edict that the blacks shall be raised to full equality.” Senator Charles Sumner comes to call on Stoneman. He refuses to accept Sumner’s mulatto mistress. He also urges a “less dan- gerous” policy in the extension of power to the freed race. Stoneman, of AFRICAN-AMERICAN CINEMA AND THE BIRTH OF A NATION 73 course, rejects this proposal. Instead he proclaims, “I shall make this man, Silas Lynch as a symbol of his race, the peer of any white man living.” With this statement, Griffith takes the agency of power and clearly places it in the control of white men. White men make or create power for black men. They are in the position to give or completely take away this power. Thus, as Dr. Frankenstein makes his monster not fully realizing what he is doing, Stone- man makes Lynch. Griffith illustrates the danger of giving African-American men power. Stoneman becomes ill and sends Lynch south to aid the carpetbaggers and to organize the black voters. Lynch takes the very bastion ofwhite southern civilization—Piedmont—and makes it his home. Radical Republican control of the South breaks down race relations and the “natural” order of things. A title reads: “The ferment begins.” Carpet- baggers induce African Americans to quit work. Instead, black men are now dancing in the streets. A “Forty Acres and a Mule” sign is shown in the background, illustrating Republican promises. Griffith implies that the Freedmen’s Bureau caused a complete breakdown in the labor system. Black men are not responsible; they must be induced to work. African Americans also begin to receive handouts from the North. A title reads: “The charity of a generous north misused to delude the ignorant.” The ravages of war are nowhere to be found. Problems with homelessness, hunger, and physical de- struction of the immediate postwar South are strikingly absent in this de- piction of government handouts. Griffith deliberately attempts to sentimentalize and aestheticize the princi- pal characters as white people. In one early scene in the second half of the film, the Little Colonel is standing on a sidewalk with his sister. Black soldiers come by and push them—or at least make them physically get off the side- walk. Lynch observes the action and in a peacefiil manner informs the Colonel, “This sidewalk belongs to us as much as it does to you, Colonel Cameron.” Griffith anticipates outrage from the spectator—the very thought that a white male may have to demonstrate common courtesy or re- spect for a black man in uniform is unheard of. White spectators are expected to sympathize with the Colonel, whereas contemporary African-American spectators may have absolutely agreed with Lynch’s remark.25 Griffith divides African-American male characters into three categories-— northern blacks, southern blacks who are disloyal to the white man, and southern black men who know their place (the faithful souls). All northern black men are portrayed in a negative light in the film, with Silas Lynch as the prime example. One illustration of this takes place after Stoneman is advised , ~-.ni—-.- ~ Cfi'fid—V. puma...» ‘flmrflnaw‘mwu‘cb‘ A Haw“ .. ,. u“ »~W 74 BLACK MANHOOD ON THE SILENT SCREEN by his physician to find a milder climate for his health. He goes to Piedmont. His northern black valet meets Big Mammy. The valet tries to hand her his bag and she exclaims, “Yo northern lowdown black trash, don’t try no airs on me.” She looks as if she will attack him but instead she kicks him and sends him upstairs with his own case. She has put him in his place. Later, when he raises his eyebrows at her in the hallway, she says to herself, “Dem free niggers f’um de No’f am sho’ crazy.” The valet’s very freedom makes him suspect, even dangerous, according to the cultural code of the South. Griffith depicts southern black men in a negative light by demonstrating their supposed animalistic passions, ignorance, and ability to be easily duped. When Silas Lynch heads south, he organizes the black vote. Set in a meet- ing hall, there is much anarchy and chaos taking place in this scene. Lynch informs the mob that the franchise is for all black men and the crowd goes wild. Now that the primitiveness of African-American men has been estab- lished in regard to voting, Griffith demonstrates overall African—American political ignorance. An elderly black man explains at a Freedmen’s Bureau supply giveaway, "Et I doan’ get nuf franchise to fill mah bucket, I do’an want it nohow.” This is an important political statement. Spoken in 1915, in a period of time in which African—American men were almost completely denied the right of suffrage in the South, Griffith argued for the continued denial of basic constitutional rights for African Americans. Griffith consistently defended The Birth of a Nation by arguing that he in- cluded both positive and negative portrayals of African Americans. But as Vincent Rocchio argues, “The Birth of a Nation is organized around con- structing a very basic meaning that it presents as truth: that blacks are un— civilized?“ For Griffith, the only positive portrayal of black masculinity was that of an elderly faithfiil black slave, modeled after Uncle Tom, who along with Mammy, conspires to save the Cameron family With this exception, every other black male character in the film is either a northern or southern Afi'ican American who cannot be trusted. The sidewalk scene with Lynch and the Colonel is one of many scenes in which a contemporary African-American viewer could have used a negoti- ated or oppositional strategy. A second such scene takes place when Lynch comes to Piedmont and formally meets the Little Colonel. Lynch puts out his hand in a gentlemanly fashion of equal respect and Cameron refuses to take it; he simply looks away and pouts. Stoneman, who is present for this rude gesture, is insulted. A contemporary African-American spectator may have also been insulted by this action. But to guarantee that the spectator would identify with the Little Colonel’s moral high ground of black nonac~ AFRICAN-AMERICAN CINEMA AND THE BIRTH OFA NATION 75 Th: Birth ofu Nation (1915). (Library of Congress) ceptance, Griffith immediately follows the. scene with a title that reads: “Lynch, a traitor to his white patron and a greater traitor to his own people whom he plans to lead to an evil way to build himself a throne of vaulting power.” This is a turning point in the film regarding racial representation. Prior to this scene, Lynch has been in complete deference to Stoneman. He has gone south to help African Americans by mobilizing the vote and help- ing out in the Reconstruction process. But Griffith argues that when Lynch attempts to give himself this agency of power he steps over the line of proper racial behavior. No acceptable African-American man should ever empower himself, according to Griffith’s doctrine on race. Once African—American men are given political power, the South digresses into a state of anarchy. The fact that African-American men are given the vote while former white Confederates are denied it (following the Congres- sional Reconstruction Act of 1867) is demonstrated. But Griffith does not stop with this fact, he carries it one step further toward racial antagonism. «sci...- s i... ‘- AAmman-“meanmwwgw“Ava...” .. _. - a. «.9...» 76 BLACK MANHOOD ON THE SILENT SCREEN African Americans not only vote, they cheat at the ballot box by casting sev- eral votes each. Respectable white men are denied not only the right to vote, they are forcibly pushed away by black soldiers still in Union uniforms. The result of their actions is that African Americans and carpetbaggers sweep the state of South Carolina and Lynch is elected as lieutenant governor. The news is reported to Stoneman, who is pleased with his protégé. African Americans celebrate their victory at the polls. Meanwhile, the South is morally overturned. Hints are made that Lynch is secretly in love with Elsie, Stoneman’s daughter. Thus, political power is a means to the inevitable black male desire—the right to possess a white woman. Lynch is proclaimed a hero to the people. Black crowds occupy the streets outside his home; many of them are black men in uniform. The cel- ebratory nature of the scene takes on a sinister twist when the Little Colonel relates a series of “outrages” that have recently occurred. An all-black jury and judge find a white man guilty of a crime in court (white control of the judicial process before this period is never addressed). While the Little Colonel relates these transgressions, his own faithful family servant is pun- ished for not voting with the Union League and the carpetbaggers. He is tied to a tree where he is whipped by black soldiers. A white man tries to stop them but is shot. The Camerons’ “Faithful Old Soul” watches the ac- tion and relates the injustices to the Little Colonel. The most telling, historically inaccurate, and blatantly racist scene of the film follows. A title reads: “The Riot in the Master Hall—the Negro Party in Control of the State House of Representatives. 101 Blacks against 23 whites. Session of 1871—historic incidents from the House of Representa- tives.” This infamous scene begins with a dissolve in which countless num— , bers of African-American men appear suddenly in the House. An \ African-American legislator is eating chicken in the chamber. Yet another member takes off his shoes and is reprimanded by the Speaker. Another leg- islator takes a swig of whiskey from a bottle. A congressman then proposes a bill requiring all whites to salute black officers on the street. The over— whelmingly black legislature heartily approves the proposal as a title reads: “The helpless white minority.” Griffith describes this legislative meeting as a “riot.” A riot can be defined as an “assemblage of three or more persons in a public place for the purpose of accomplishing a concerted action in a tur- bulent and disorderly manner for a common purpose irrespective of the law- lessness of the purpose.”27 Lawlessness is purely an objective stance in this scene. All of the activity is being held in a representative body through the lawmaking process. Griffith would consider this a riot because the legislation The quintessential fear of the white man: African-American male desire for white women. (The Birth Ufa Nation, 1915). (Museum of Modern Art) N. nun-i.-- . .uag'v—c a .ame us. a ,... m4. taut-Lamar "* tana-W‘r"aans."umaa 4. . - ‘ :nflm’mflWV-"MMTWWWWPWV r 7|. l 78 BLACK MANHOOD ON THE SILENT SCREEN passed is offensive to him. African-American men are to be placed under the thumb of the law, not behind the law. The South Carolina legislature then passes a bill providing for the intermar- riage of blacks and whites. White respectable citizens (many of them women) observe the proceedings despairineg in the gallery. When several black legisla— tors start to leer at the white women in the gallery, a white man removes the women he had accompanied to the building. Griffith used actual African- American men in this entire scene, making the black male drive for white fe- male flesh that much more intense for white audiences. Griffith’s choice of real African-American men in this scene is not accidental; it is an aesthetic punch that underlines his theme that black male political power leads to sexual ag— gression.28 All the legislature begins cheering; Lynch is treated like a hero. The gallery and state house are totally out of control; the ultimate plum prize of political power and equality has been won—the right of miscegenation. Griffith clearly defines the real battleground of Reconstruction—black versus white. Boundaries between white Republicans and Democrats, north- erners and southerners, carpetbaggers and secessionist conservatives, are meaningless. Racial cohesiveness is what is mandatory. Griffith does a bril- liant job throwing off the artificial boundaries in the white race from this section of the film onward. Griffith immediately solidifies racial loyalty by demonstrating the dangers the Radical Republican—dominated government brought to the South. The next title informs the viewer: “Later the grim reaping.” The film introduces “Gus, the renegade, a product of the vicious doctrine spread by the carpet— baggers.” Gus is shown in a close-up shot leering at Elsie and the younger Cameron sister. In the next scene, Griffith has Elsie and Little Sister meet Lynch on the street. Elsie, raised in an abolitionist household, believes in racial equality and shakes Lynch’s hand. Little Sister is shocked and so is the Little Colonel, who is in the background. Lynch appears pleased that the Colonel sees this. Little Sister, in disbelief, asks Elsie why she would possi— bly extend this formality. At this very moment, Gus walks by and looks at Little Sister as she goes inside. The Little Colonel threatens him to stay away from his sister. Lynch sees this verbal confrontation and comes to the res- cue. He threatens the Little Colonel. Two important morals are developed here: all black men will stick together so white men must too, and all black men want white women. At this point the South appears lost, but white southern manhood comes to the rescue. The Little Colonel retreats to a bluff where he agonizes over “the degradation and ruin of his people.” While he ruminates, the Colonel AFRICAN-AMERICAN CINEMA AND THE BIRTH OF A NATION 79 witnesses two white children dressing up in a sheet and scaring four black children who think they are a ghost, giving the Little Colonel his inspiration for the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan begins to frighten and terrorize the black population. Lynch’s supporters score “first blood” as they shoot at Klans- men. Lynch describes the vigilante organization to Stoneman and Stoneman proclaims, “We shall crush the white South. under the heel of the Black South.” At this point, Stoneman informs his daughter that her fiancé, the Little Colonel, is a terrorist and she promptly breaks off the engagement. The most dramatic scene of the film follows. Against her brother’s warn- ing, Little Sister goes to a spring with a bucket. She is walking through the woods when Gus spies her. He backs off for a while. The innocence of Lit- tle Sister is accentuated by her captivation with a squirrel; she is more of a little girl than a woman. When Mrs. Cameron informs the Little Colonel that his sister is alone, he immediately begins to look for her. Gus comes up to Little Sister and says, “You see I’m a capt. now and I want to marry.” Gus delivers this line in a nonthreatening way and gently touches her arm. If he had been a white male character this would have been considered a moment of innocent naivete’. Little Sister then proceeds to knock him down. She be- gins to shriek for help and runs away. He yells after her, “Wait, Missy, I won’t hurt yeh!” and follows her.29 Considering the racial climate of the period, Gus would certainly have been lynched for even approaching Little Sister. He had more to fear than Little Sister did. The Little Colonel is right behind them; he finds her bucket and shawl. Little Sister heads for the top of a cliff. Gus approaches the ledge while Little Sister screams for him to stay away or she will jump. This par- ticular scene has been considered as a potential rape scene. The interpreta- tion is that Gus follows Little Sister in an attempt to sexually have his way with her. The foregone conclusion was that all black men want white women and what all black men are interested in, in terms of white women, is sexual conquest. An oppositional reading implies nothing of the sort. Gus never implies anything provocative, he never makes any sexual advances. He indi- rectly proposes marriage so his intentions appear honorable. For Little Sis- ter, who has presumably been fed a steady diet of the mythology of black licentiousness, death is better than any physical or emotional contact with Gus, so she jumps.30 Griffith attempts to whip the audience into a furor of revenge and racial hatred. The Little Colonel finds her body, but she is able to reveal her “killer” before she dies. The protection ofwhite women be- comes one of the central themes in The Birth of a Nation. Little Sister is a symbol of white womanhood and white civilization. int} hid-h I. 1 I I .2 O l 47;, .g.-.'... v-g «em . ..., «slam ~1ww .. 1.,»me _‘ ._ 80 BLACK MANHOOD ON THE SILENT SCREEN Gus, meanwhile, hides in a gin mill full of black men. The Little Colonel goes to a blacksmith shop to enlist white townsan to Search for the accused Gus. They are going to “give him a fair trial in the dim halls of the _Invisiblc Empire.” The comparison between these two groups of men is important. The African-American men are sitting drinking while the white men are all hard at work. A white blacksmith enters the gin mill looking for Gus and proceeds to fight everyone there. At least eight African-American men fight him. He is victorious against all of them, illustrating the physical supremacy of white masculinity. But Gus, who does not play by the rules, shoots the blacksmith in the back and rides off on a horse. The Klansmen eventually find Gus and dump his dead body on Silas Lynch’s doorstep. The racial lines are now clearly drawn. Lynch considers Gus’s murder a racial challenge. He orders black militia reinforcements to fill the streets. Stoneman, quite aware of the consequences, decides to slip out of town. Piedmont is now embroiled in a racial war. The Little Colonel preaches to his fellow Klan members, “Brethren, this flag bears the red stain of the life of a southern woman, a priceless sacrifice on the altar of outraged civilization.” Thus, the Klan is at war to protect white womanhood. But there is more— he appeals to his fellow Klan members’ sense ofreligious and masculine pride. Holding up a cross, he exclaims, “Here I raise the ancient symbol of the un— conquered race of men.” These former members of the Confederacy may have been defeated in the Civil War but they will not be defeated racially. Lynch responds by promising death to anyone in possession ofa Klan cos- tume. He is happy to wreak vengeance on Cameron House. Old Man Cameron is arrested by a scalawag officer and two black soldiers. His former slaves laugh at the old man as he is physically and verbally abused. Mammy and the Faithful Soul decide they are going to help their former master. They pretend to be black mockers in order to rescue him. They are success— ful in leading their former (present?) master to escape. Griffith demonstrates that African Americans can be controlled and tamed, as long as they remain loyal to white authority. They hurriedly leave in a cart that is followed closely by black Union soldiers. The cart breaks down in front ofa cabin owned by two Union veterans. It becomes their refuge, the former enemies become their allies. Perhaps the most telling title of the film reads: “The former en— emies of North and South are united again in common defense of the Aryan birthright.” The symbolic unification of racial solidarity is complete; the ar- tificial and meaningless alliance between black and white is broken. Griffith then begins an ingenious crosscutting scenario, interspersing shots of black soldiers attacking the cabin with Lynch’s proposal of marriage AFRICAN-AMERICAN CINEMA AND THE BIRTH OF A NATION 81 and eventual violence toward Elsie. Griffith’s furious editing heightens the suspense. The racial threat becomes more menacing and disturbing as the scene progresses; both aesthetic and textual attributes contribute to this emotion. Elsie goes to see Lynch. He is surrounded by the “new Black power base,” well dressed in postbellum “white” fashion. When Lynch looks at Elsie he does so in a romantic, nonthreatening manner (much like Gus). He proposes marriage and appears sincere, truthful, honest, and calm. Elsie’s response is that of horror. Lynch locks the door to the room and his mood suddenly changes. He is taken aback by her rejection; she vows she will never marry him. Lynch threatens her with a horsewhipping for her in- solcnce. Pointing to African-American rioters outside, he exclaims, “With them I will build a black Empire and you as my queen shall be by my side.” In this scene, Griffith crystallizes his worst racial fantasies—black corruption and the misuse of the political process, black male dominance and sexual conquest over white women, and black arrogance. The scene shifts to out- side Lynch’s residence where the streets are full of African Americans shoot- ing guns in the air. The mood is that of lawlessness and chaos. Griffith illustrates that the transmission of any power to African-American men will lead to anarchy. The shot then shifts again to inside the house. Lynch smells Elsie’s dress and she goes berserk. She pleads with him to leave her alone and screams. The sexual tension (and outrage) heightens as he leers at her in a provocative fashion. Griffith then tells the viewer not all is lost in the South, the great heroic force of white masculinity is to ride to the rescue. In one brief title: “The Klan is summoned,” Griffith illustrates the magnifi- cence and overawing power of southern white manhood. The action then shifts back to Elsie and Lynch. Lynch is described as “drunk with wine and power.” He prepares for a forced wedding, and this makes Elsie take action. She tries to escape but he chases her around the room. Interspersing shots of the Klan and the Elsie/ Lynch saga are de- picted. Elsie finally swoons and Lynch holds her in his arms. At this point, Stoneman, her father, arrives. Black soldiers guard the door to the room where Elsie and Lynch are. Lynch then locks her in a room with black con- fidants. He enters an anteroom and tells Stoneman, “I want to marry a white woman.” Stoneman approves of this action, not knowing that it is his daughter he wants to marry. Lynch announces, “The lady I want to marry is your daughter.” Stoneman then becomes angry; the racial solidarity is now complete.31 Silas Lynch is portrayed by a white man in blackface. One assumes that Griffith never would have allowed close physical contact between Lillian .upn'uuu - "a. I“ ' o “A, ..-~.v.~ p. —- - 1.2m “:z'IvaN'"VWW’MW-uhrwmyfl’fl: ,wwwm-s-m a, . w .vm_4{a-y,. r 82 BLACK MANHOOD ON THE SILENT SCREEN Gish/Elsie and a real AfricamAmerican man. This creates an interesting phenomenon in the spectator’s mind. On a narratological level, one is ter- rified by the premise that the black man may have his way with Elsie On the other hand, this is relieved when the viewer realizes that she is nof re- ally threatened because this is simply a white actor. It is a cinematic casting coup for Griffith; he both antagonizes and pacifies the white spectator at the same time. Griffith’s editing then proceeds in a flurry of activity. Four interspersing scenarios appear in rapid order. First, Elsie tries to break a window and es- cape from Lynch. She is forcibly restrained by Lydia, who tries to control her, and Stoneman is physically overtaken by Lynch. Second, black soldiers attack the cabin and threaten the inhabitants. Cameron wants to surrender but the Union veterans refuse to allow him. The message is clear—all white men must stick together. The third scene shows the town of Piedmont. A title reads: “The town given over to crazed Negroes brought in by Lynch and Stoneman to overcome the whites.” Thousands of black men are armed' the scenes are extremely crowded. Griffith paints a picture similar to that of cockroaches or bees swarming over a victim. In a brief provocative shot, two African-American men fight over a black woman. She is helpless as they begin tearing at her clothes in an attempt to rape her. The fourth locus of action centers on the Klan. In five minutes of action they proceed to clean up the racial disaster. The Klan first overwhelms the black mob and then they rescue Elsie from Lynch. At the cabin, the action is still extreme. African-American men furiously attempt to break into the cabin, and it ap- pears that they will be successful. Cameron holds a gunstock to his daugh- ter’s head; he would rather kill her than have her molested by a black man. But the Klan arrives to rescue the party. The restoration of order is now complete. The Klan forces the African- American population to give up their arms, and the Klan parades through thehstreets as “Dixie” plays and the white inhabitants of Piedmont cheer on. African Americans run off into hiding, back into submission. At the next election, Klan members carry guns with them to the ballot box to prevent African—American men from voting. The coda of the film is an allegorical representation of Mars dissolving into the Prince of Peace. As Thomas Cripps brilliantly states, “The coda at once embraces pacificism, Christian— ity, Klan terrorism and the virtues of the white race.”2 The Birth of a Nation was an epic of white supremacist mythology. Grif- fith’s ability to link the visual imagery of cinema to human emotion was a landmark; the director was able to tap into a familiar assemblage of racial, AFRICAN-AMERICAN CINEMA AND THE BIRTH OF A NATION 83 sexual, and cultural symbolism that entranced the white filmgoing public. Griffith, the southern Conservative, became Griffith, the Radical racist, with the production of The Birth of a Nation. Richard Dyer argues that the film “shows the forging of a national identity, in which geographical division [North versus South] is transcended through a realization of a common white racial identity.”33 The director composes his film around the obsessive fear of the Radical mentality—that black men would use political, military, or physical power to rape white women. The Birth of a Nation opened in mid-February 1915 in Los Angeles, moved to New York in early spring, and to Boston in April, where African Americans “mounted a stand against it.”34 Jesse Rhines argues that “protest against this film brought blacks and whites together in the first major con- test over racial discrimination in the motion picture industry.”35 The viciousness of The Birth ofa Nation mobilized the African-American population. The NAACP launched a vigorous campaign to halt the exhibi- tion of the film.36 The controversy over The Birth of it Nation swelled the ranks of the civil rights organization, giving it a rallying point to attract more members. The organizational and mobilizing impulse already present within the African-American community was heightened by the sensationalistic film. The Chicago Defender proclaimed, “It is meant to create a greater race prejudice than obviously exists.”37 An editorial in the Crisis, the official jour— nal of the NAACP, claimed, “It is gratifying to know that in this work [against the film] we have the cooperation of all elements ofcolored people. The New Turk Age [a black newspaper] and the Crisir worked hand in hand with Harlem, Brooklyn, and Jersey City. We know of no factions in the righting of this great wrong.”8 The fight against the film was carried out on both a national and a local level. The national leadership of the NAACP worked diligently to encourage the National Board of Review not to ap- prove the film.39 Branch chapters in Oakland, Tacoma, Boston, Portland, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Atlantic City, Dayton, and other cities worked enthu- siastically to force the prohibition of the exhibition of the film in their re- gions.40 The Boston branch published a pamphlet titled, “Fighting a Vicious Film,” which it distributed throughout the nation. The tract contained let- ters, speeches, and “evidence” against the film.‘fl The Crisis covered these local campaigns with the hope of spreading reaction against the film. As Iane Gaines has noted, the NAACP leadership hoped that the fight against the film would translate into a larger struggle against segregation and racism in the public sphere.42 African-American criticism of the film focused on the negative depiction 84 BLACK MANHOOD ON THE SILENT SCREEN of African-American men. An editorial in the Crisis claimed that “the negro [is] represented either as an ignorant fool, a vicious rapist, a venal and un- scrupulous politician or a faithful but doddering old idiot.”43 A.strongly gendered tone was present in the arguments against the film. The New Turk Evening Globe argued that “white men in this country have never been just to black men?“ For others, the status of women was at issue. W. Allison Sweeney believed that the fight against The Birth of a Nation was a fight to protect African-American womanhood. She argued, “Why ask that we mois- ten our tears over the graves of the Ku Klux Klan, the midnight murderers . . . despoilers of helpless womanhood—rapers of the queens of a race— queens, mark you, just as surely as those with eyes of blue and flaxen hair.”45 What connected all of these attacks on the film was the contention that it did not reflect the reality of African—American life.46 The Birth of a Nation illustrated to the African—American community that the visual imagery of the cinema was a powerful tool to oppress African Americans. In their sixth annual report, the NAACP argued, “People grew to hate their neighbors for not carefully stated reasons or carefully investigated facts, but for the very lack of reasons and facts. That makes the power of suggestion and slander all the more dangerous. . . . A peculiarly aggravating case of this during the last year has been the motion picture play Birth ofa Nation?“ From state to state and city to city, The Birth of a Nation’s overwhelming popularity persuaded many motion pic- ture‘censorship boards to release the film, sometimes with cuts, to meet the clamor of movie fans.48 Many African Americans opposed to the film believed that the film could have real behavioral effects, reinforcing atti— tudes or causing racial strife. The Birth 0ft! Nation was an attempt, there- fore, not only to provoke but to disrupt public peace. The Crisis argued, “The Play is leaving the cities and going into the smaller towns where its influence may be greater than in the larger cities.”‘*9 This statement illus- trates that NAACP leaders realized the power of motion pictures to dis- seminate ideology and influence the public. Clyde Taylor refers to the African-American reaction and organized resistance against the film as an “unprecedented new force of resistance that demonstrated an altered his— torical terrain in which racial Radicalism was removed further from the center and placed on the defensive.”50 The leaders and rank and file of the NAACP knew all too well that lynchings usually took place in rural areas and not big cities. The African-American community soon realized that boycotts and calls for censorship would have only a marginal effect.51 What was really needed were alternative cinematic portrayals of African— AFRICAN-AMERICAN CINEMA AND THE BIRTH OF A NATION 85 American life that were both realistic and uplifting. Attempting to prevent such racist films was a limited reaction to the dissemination of prejudicial viewpoints. But the sixth annual NAACP report claimed, “If Negroes and all their friends were free to answer in the same channels, by the same methods in which the attack is made, the path would be easy.”52 The Birth of a Nation, thus, indirectly led to a proliferation of African-American filmmaking.53 The Birth of a Nation initiated a serious discussion in the African-American community over white control of African-American imagery in film. One month after the release of the film, Edward Sheldon’s old stage play The Nigger was translated into film. African Americans greeted the film with a hostile reception because of the word “nigger” in the title. A number of NAACP branches called for the banning of the film. But The Nigger was important for another reason—it caused African-American journalists, ac- tivists, and club members to debate whether the portrayal of African Amet- icans in the film was objectionable. The Birth of a Nation had made African Americans seriously consider how they were portrayed on the screen; no longer would white filmmakers be able to portray African-American men in any way they chose without organized action against such films. The N15- ger was actually an expose of racial prejudice. Phillip Morrow, the protago— nist of the film, grows up with the understanding that he possesses the finest lineage of white southern manhood. He decides to run for governor with the help of a local whiskey distiller, Cliff Noyes, who makes his for- tune by supplying African Americans with demon rum. Morrow signs a Prohibition bill after his election, believing that alcohol consumption is un- Christian and immoral. This destroys Noyes’s business. He decides to ruin his protégé by exposing the fact that Morrow has black blood in him. Mor- row resigns the governorship but- decides he is going to help his newfound “people” rather than be destroyed.54 Once the true message of the film was revealed, a number of prominent African Americans ended their attack on the film. May Childs Nerney of the NAACP said, “A friend of mine went to see it and says that it shows the other side, that is, the white man’s re- sponsibility for existing conditions.”55 The African-American community immediately attempted a number of cinematic responses to The Birth of a Nation. lane Gaines argues that “early black filmmaking is inextricably tied to the release of this film.”56 Booker T. Washington strongly suggested that his successful autobiography Up from Slavery be translated into film. Up from Slavery, a highly fictionalized story “mama.- -‘ m ‘ 86 BLACK MANHOOD ON THE SILENT SCREEN of Washington’s life, helped establish the Tuskegee leader as the spokesman of his race in the eyes of white America. Primarily a rags-to-riches story, Up from Slavery was a hopeful, purposeful book that preached African-American economic nationalism at the same time it acquiesced to whites. A friend of Washington’s argued that it “might quite properly be used as a counter-irri- tant to Birth of a Nation.”57 But the story went unfilmed. In the summer of 1915, both Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois expressed interest in a cinematic alternative to The Birth of a Nation.58 Their intention was strictly political and not monetary.59 The New York branch of the NAACP openly courted Elaine Sterne of Universal Pictures to develop a script that would be “thoroughly sympathetic to the Negro.”"0 The NAACP first considered a twelve-reel film titled Lincoln’s Dream, but the film shrank to five reels when the organization failed to secure financial banking for the potential project from their white members. Like Up from Slavery, it was never produced."1 , Booker T. Washington and his private secretary Emmett J. Scott made an attempt to create an alternate film. Washington’s control of the National Negro Business League guaranteed a forum for distribution and his presi- dency of the world-famous Tuskegee Institute would give the project a sense of esteem. After The Birth ofa Nation experienced censorship attacks, D. W. Griffith contacted Washington about the possibility of shooting a concilia- tory prologue to the film to be shot at Tuskegee. Washington, already under attack from DuBois and his camp, refused to deal with the director. Scott and Washington opened negotiations with Carl Laemmle of Universal. Elaine Sterne began pitching Lincoln ’5 Dream to the Tuskegee camp after the NAACP failed to secure financing. Unfortunately, Washington died be- fore the project became a reality, and without his clout, the proposed film simply faded away."2 Griffith’s production company also contacted Hampton Institute, an-\ other leading Afiican~American institution of higher education, about pro- ducing an epilogue to The Birth ofa Nation. The college administration agreed to Griffith’s proposal and the film was produced in the spring of 1916. No existing copy of this epilogue exists, but by all contemporary ac— counts it demonstrated black progress since Reconstruction. The tagged-on footage had little connection to the original film; apparently it was a five- to six-minute series of shots of the training taking place at Hampton.“ This ad- dition to The Birth of a Nation was a deliberate attempt by Griffith and his production company to squelch African-American protest against the film. It was also a naive attempt by the leaders of Hampton to dilute the poison- AFRICAN-AMERICAN CINEMA AND THE BIRTH OF A NATION 6/ ous message of the original film. Contemporary sources claim that the short epilogue was a disjointed piece of filmmaking, simply added to pacify state and local censorship boards.“4 Many African Americans, most notably leaders in the NAACP, strongly protested the addition of the footage. In the Crisis, W. E. B. DuBois pub- licly criticized Hampton for its decision. Oswald Garrison Villard, chairper- son of the NAACP board of directors, argued: “That Hampton should ally itself in any way with so vile a play as The Birth of a Nation is a compromise which I must condemn without reservation?"5 Many African-American leaders would not agree to the modification of racist tracts like The Birth of a Nation as cinematic alternatives of African-American imagery. Previous attempts at pitching an independent project to Hollywood may have been unsuccessful, but Emmett I. Scott, Washington’s protege, was de- termined to become involved in the filmmaking industry. Scott corre- sponded with Edwin L. Barker of the Advance Motion Picture Company of Chicago. One month after Washington’s death, Scott signed a contract with the Advance Company promising access to National Negro Business League chapters, African—American newspapers, the Tuskegee Institute, and his own “colored man’s viewpoint.” In return, Scott would become a writer—con- sultant on an unspecified project and would receive a percentage of the roy- alties from the project. The film never got off the ground. In 1916 and 1917 the newly organized The Birth of a Rate Photoplay Or- ganization attempted to raise funds from both black and white investors to film a grand epic of racial progress. The prospectus for the company promised: Never in the history of motion pictures has a proposed photoplay cre— ated so much interest. The Birth of a Race will be 12 reels in length— a full evenings entertainment—and the plans are to make this the greatest feature photoplay ever presented to the public. It will be ex- hibited in practically every civilized country in the world. Because of its truthfulness, and of its proclamation of social betterment and un- derstanding, The Birth of a Race will not be prohibited by any state or city, and children as well as grownups will see it."6 The press material argued: “In prophetic vision it [Birth of a Race] will bring close the future, in which the races—all races——will see each other as they are.”67 Supporters of the project included Julius Rosenwald of Sears and Roe- buck, Frank O. Lowdon, governor of Illinois, and a pantheon of African- .e.-. r. 5-3- :é‘iuuii— t H . r v . ‘51:: 88 BLACK MANHOOD ON THE SILENT SCREEN American journalists, academics, physicians, and professionals. The project was supported by African Americans and Euro-Americans. Filming began in 1917 but dragged on for over a year. Due to a lack of financial support, The Birth of a Rate was abandoned by a host of film com- panies. These companies included Selig, the Frohman Amusement Com— pany, and Rothacker Film Manufacturing Company. The film stock was simply passed on from company to company and the original intention of the film was drastically changed. Successive film companies found them- selves caught up in an expensive project. Therefore, appealing to a mass au- dience to recoup investment costs became more critical than strictly appealing to African-American political consciousness. Thomas Cripps claims, “As whites were divided by differing economics and politics, so blacks were divided by the wish to make either great art or great profits.”68 By the time the film was completed in 1918, the United States had become heavily involved in World War I and war propaganda played an influential role in the finished product.69 ~ The Birth of a Rate has traditionally been denigrated by film critics and historians. It was a disappointment to many African-American investors who had expected a direct assault on Griffith’s The Birth ofa Nation. Contem- porary critics described the film as “grotesque,” “uninteresting,” “discon— nected,” “without form,” and “a terrible waste.”70 This criticism was often based on what the film originally promised rather than on the final product. The partial film that remains today is a little disjointed at times but it re— mains a remarkable work, considering that The Birth of a Nation, Griffith’s fierce racial diatribe, had been produced only three years earlier.71 The film is epic in structure. It bears a strong resemblance to Griffith’s masterpiece, Intolerance (1916). The Birth of a Race begins with the cre- ation of “man.” A title reads: “Man is created, but it is a white man.” The film begins with a strongly racist premise, but by the time it reaches the age ofNoah, the film argues that “the sons of man multiplied and spread all over the earth and divided into groups and tribes. . . . they had forgotten God’s thought in Creation—Equality—and gave themselves over to the folly of envy and prejudice.” The directors show the beginnings of warfare. In this section there is the first appearance of an African‘American man, in a cave— man costume. A title reads: “And they fought like beasts—these men to whom God had given dominion over all things.” A black tribe is shown fighting a white tribe. The next major scene depicts the Egyptians holding the Israelites in bondage. The film bears a strong resemblance to Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten AFRICAN-AMERICAN CINEMA AND THE BIRTH OF A NATION 89 Commandments (which would not be produced for another nine years). In Egypt, all of the servants are black. But the wrongs of slavery are clearly shown. In fact, the allegorical similarities between slavery in Egypt and America are induced. The evils of slavery are further shown in a segment on ancient Rome. The directors argue that Jesus Christ comes to earth to save the millions in slavery persecuted by the Romans. Jesus Christ is shown preaching to a wide variety of people. Many African, Chinese, and Asian peoples are purposefully depicted in close-up. A title reads: “Christ made no distinctions between them—His teachings were for all.” As Christ is cruci- fied, a black Simon of Cyrene is shown carrying Iesus’ cross. These basic themes of equality, freedom, and peace are carried through- out the rest of the historical evolution of “mankind” (American mankind). The voyages of Christopher Columbus, the Revolutionary War, the Decla- ration of Independence, Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, and World War I are all painted with a proequality brush. One of the last scenes of the film depicts a black man and a white man tilling the soil of a farm. The film dissolves and they are suddenly in military uniform. Although this scene is an argument in favor of African-American participation and support of the war effort, The Birth of a Race puts African-American men on an even plane with white men as both farmers and soldiers, which is remarkable for 1918. Despite the good intentions” of the numerous filmmakers who worked on The Birth of a Race, many African Americans were disappointed with the final product. Tuskegee administrator Emmett 1. Scott, who had bought stock in the company, claimed: The venture was conceived . . . by a group of promoters who were lured by the pinnacle attained by David W. Griffith. Griffith was con- tent with chronicling the birth of a nation. This group . . . proposed to take in a race. For stock selling purposes, that race was the Negro race. The picture was started on the premise of a nationwide defence of the Negro race. . . . A large quantity of film picturing the advance- ment of the Negro race was dropped.72 From 1915 to 1918, the controversy over The Birth of a Nation marked a radical change in the relationship between African Americans and the cine- matic medium. For the first time, the African-American population mobilized a massive propaganda campaign against a motion picture. This campaign was carried out in newly established black newspapers and organizational journals air-:sz .‘fl‘ i 90 BLACK MANHOOD ON THE SILENT SCREEN like the Crisis. The fight was led by African Americans, with a segment of the white Progressive community providing assistance. The NAACP became a national voice for the black population because of the furor over The: Birth of a Nation and would remain a leading civil rights organization. Moreover, the cinematic attempts at dispelling the falsehoods over The Birth of a Nation il- lustrated to African Americans that neither the major motion picture studios, white financiers, nor white creative talent could be trusted with providing a more realistic depiction of African-American manhood. Therefore, African Americans would have to develop a cinematic apparatus of their own. 5 THE DEFENSE OF BLACK MANHOOD ON THE SCREEN The Birth of a Nation’s vicious message of racial intolerance persuaded many African-American men that an independent black cinema was necessary for the social and cultural betterment of the black population. But African- American filmmaking actually had begun before Griffith’s classic film with the formation of the Foster Photoplay Company in 1910. 'This chapter will address the African-American cinematic response to Euro-American filmic stereotypes. African-American men portrayed them— selves in both documentaries and fictional narratives. Documentary films proved conclusively that Euro-American stereotypes of black men had little in common with their real lives. Fictional films gave African-American film audiences black male role models to epitomize and idolize. This chapter will support my central thesis—that a redefinition of black manhood was the major theme in black independent silent cinema. Through the cinematic medium, African-American male filmmakers reflected on the attributes of positive black manhood. These sentiments were perfected by the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, one of the most successful and prolific of the early black motion picture companies, whose oeuvre focused on a cinematic reworking of black masculinity. William Foster was the first African American to form a motion picture pro- duction company. Sources vary concerning the origins of the Foster Photo~ play Company, but it is known that it was organized in Chicago between 1910 and 1912. Foster was a multitalented man, active in the African-Amer- ican community in Chicago in a number of cultural capacities. He was an actor (under the stage name Iuli Jones), a sportswriter for the Chimgo Dc- fender, and a theatrical promoter.l Foster produced a number of one- and 91 .--.‘a. x. be. auxilia- ! afim~laafiu .. ‘ 3- was”? ...
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This note was uploaded on 04/07/2008 for the course SOC 1376 taught by Professor Barton during the Spring '08 term at Temple.

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