D.W. Griffith‘s legendary racist masterpiece just turned one hundred years old this month. THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) revolutionized the art of making movies (techniques that are still used in today’s Hollywood) while at the same time it poisoned race relations & contributed to a brief resurgence of popularity for the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
What always intrigues me about the movie is its unspoken subtext. Although a portion of the movie delves into politics, it doesn’t talk about Democrats or Republicans. It does, however, casually quote Democrats like Woodrow Wilson:
“The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation… until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.” – WOODROW WILSON
The movie was based on a book written by Thomas Dixon who once declared his goal “was to revolutionize Northern sentiments by a presentation of history that would transform every [white] man in the audience into a good Democrat!”
As author William Loren Katz recently pointed out in his blog, the movie was a damn effective piece of propaganda:
The Birth of a Nation focused on the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War when formerly enslaved men were allowed to vote and hold office in 11 Southern states. Dixon was a young former Baptist minister in love with gallant Ku Klux Klan stories he heard as a child and decided to write a book, a play, and a movie.
Dixon described Reconstruction as a clash between white good and black evil. He briefly touched history since from 1868 to 1898 African American men under the protection of three constitutional amendments and 25,000 federal troops were elected to office in Southern states. Then his film omits a lot: With white allies, black elected officials helped rewrite the constitutions of Mississippi and South Carolina, elected 22 black congressmen, including two senators from Mississippi, a Supreme Court justice in South Carolina, and a host of state representatives, sheriffs, mayors, and other local officials in 10 states.
This coalition managed to introduce the South’s first public school system, and bring economic, political, and prison reforms to their states, including laws to help the poor of both races and to end racial injustice. Nonetheless, black legislators did not challenge segregation in Southern education, business, or personal life.
After about half a dozen years, as the federal government largely sat silent, these governments were overthrown by KKK violence and systematic election fraud. In 1877 the federal government caved in, made a deal with former slaveholders and withdrew all troops. A democratic experiment was overthrown and white supremacy reigned.
The Birth of a Nation sought to erase any memories of the role of African Americans and the unity they forged with whites to bring democracy to Southern states. The film’s lesson: Race relations must remain in the hands of those who once owned, “understood,” and controlled black people. And white violence is justified to ensure this noble end.
Even GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) had a touch of revisionism to it. You’ll note that the Northern carpetbagger (played by Victor Jory) along with his black associate are portrayed as less buffoonish as the carpetbaggers in THE BIRTH OF A NATION but they are still the “enemy” – probable members of the Radical Republicans who won the Civil War.
It’s sad that the black hole of memory affects many members of today’s Republican Party. Not long after its founding, the GOP declared itself to be the party opposed to the “twin relics of barbarism, polygamy, and slavery“. It was a party of modernism – a party of liberalism – that wanted to build upon the foundation laid down by the nation’s revolutionary Founding Fathers. It’s no surprise that Ronald Reagan – a man of the Old Left who was drawn to the Republican Party – would often quote Thomas Paine, the most radical of the Founding Fathers because he shared Paine’s liberal view of politics. And by “liberal” I mean the classical liberalism that was a hallmark of the Anglo-Scotch Enlightenment which, in turn, made the American Revolution a reality that even today remains imitated by few yet despised by many.
The Republican Party in the past used to be the standard-bearer of that proud American tradition of classical liberalism. Where is THAT party today? Is it as invisible as the (black) Republicans in THE BIRTH OF A NATION whose grotesque caricatures live on in the academic archives about popular culture – or has the party’s liberalism extinguished itself?