By CRAIG D'OOGE
On the night of Monday, April 25, a panel of three experts sat down in the Mumford Room of the Library of Congress to discuss D.W. Griffith's silent film classic "The Birth of a Nation" (1915).
The film was to be shown the next day in the Mary Pickford Theater as part of the Library's series commemorating the 100th anniversary of the motion picture. The panelists were Thomas Cripps, a professor at Morgan State University and the foremost historian of African Americans in the cinema; William Greaves, a black actor, director and producer; and John Hope Franklin, professor of legal history at Duke University Law School and one of America's most respected historians on African American and Southern history.
At the conclusion of their discussion, a young man approached a microphone that had been set up for the purpose and asked a question. He said he was afraid it might brand him as a philistine.
"One thing that seems to unify all three of you on the panel is that, whatever its awful faults are, 'Birth of a Nation' is a great film," he said. "But I have a little difficulty seeing the greatness in it. From my perspective, a lot of the acting wasn't so good. A lot of the scenes were very shallow. There were some strange, quirky directorial things in it that made the audience laugh. I guess that I can see that it was a great spectacle at the time, and was seen by a great number of people, and it had a great impact on the perceptions of Reconstruction. But I wonder what each of you find so great about the film?"
Coming as it did after an hour's discussion of all the harm this film has done over the last 79 years, the question offered a ray of hope. It was a ray of hope that perhaps, at long last, the film's enormous power to breed hate and bigotry was beginning to wane.
As John Hope Franklin has written, "The supreme tragedy is that in The Clansman (the book on which the film is based) and in 'Birth of a Nation,' [author] Thomas Dixon succeeded in using a powerful and wonderful new instrument of communication to perpetuate a cruel hoax on the American people that has come distressingly close to being permanent."
During the discussion, Dr. Franklin summarized the hoax as the creation of a picture of Reconstruction that is being used, to this day, to bar African Americans from positions of public trust.
"First," Professor Franklin said, "we have a picture of negro rule that existed no where in the South. ... Second, it is a picture of a prolonged drunken brawl ... and third, it is a picture of a reign of black terror that began with the surrender at Appomattox and continued until the withdrawal of the last troops from the South."
Some 50 million people saw "The Birth of a Nation" in the five years after its release. And, as Pat Loughney, curator in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, writes in his notes to the film, "Griffith's heavily propagandized version of race history, reinforced by an emotionally charged melodrama, was absorbed as truth by a majority of those who saw it."
A great deal of the film's effectiveness can be attributed to the astonishingly innovative techniques Griffith brought together for the first time in a feature-length motion picture. Before Griffith, motion pictures were shot from random distances. Griffith varied the perspective from close-up, to medium, to long shots according to the dramatic effect he wanted to achieve. He edited the shots for continuity. He discovered that the audience had the capacity to follow cross cutting and multiple story lines within the same film. And he coached his actors toward a naturalistic style, away from the stilted, artificial poses that were the norm.
The heroic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan as a sort of SWAT team of righteousness led to a dramatic rebirth of this secret organization. Although there was some disagreement among the panelists as to how much the film was used for actual recruitment, author Scott Cutlip provided a number of convincing historical details in a letter published after the event in The New York Times. According to Mr. Cutlip, the modern Klan had its beginning in 1920 when two out-of-work World War I publicists in Atlanta formed a partnership with the owner of a bottle club that was going out of business because of Prohibition.
In only three years, the 3,000- member club grew into a national force for bigotry and hatred with 3 million members, thanks to a propaganda campaign that featured sponsored screenings of "The Birth of a Nation," according to Mr. Cutlip.
Against this background of malevolent influence and flawed grandeur, the panel sought to explain "The Birth of Nation" without forgiving it.
Thomas Cripps, entering a "no-man's land," as he said, between the aesthetics of movies and the politics of movies, steered the most moderate course. With its depiction of "white virtue" vs. "black vice," Mr. Cripps saw the film within the larger context of the passing of the Victorian social order during the "nadir" of America's race relations.
While acknowledging that the movie was a "benchmark" and even a "watershed" in race relations, Mr. Cripps focused attention on the film's positive effects, if only in opposition.
"The Birth of a Nation" gave the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People its first major opportunity to flex its muscle and win; helped to formulate the Hollywood Production Code; and sparked a call for movies shot from the black point of view, according to Mr. Cripps.
The case for the alleged beneficial effects of the film was undercut, however, by the comments of William Greaves, who followed Cripps's presentation. Describing himself as "something of a walking museum piece," Mr. Greaves shared his personal history as a black actor and filmmaker who intended to come on like a hurricane and ended up feeling like a raindrop.
"D.W. Griffth was the reason I got into film production," Mr. Greaves told the audience. He hoped to act in films that would change the kind of world view that Griffith's movies espoused. But the reality of the degree of a contribution he could make hit him when he got the chance to act in a movie directed by Jose Ferrer with Gloria Swanson. He was supposed to play a railroad porter. "But not just a railroad porter," he said, "but a shuffling, giggling, genuflecting buffoon."
He walked out after two days of rehearsals.
It was a traumatic experience, but he was fortunate because his education at a Harlem institute gave him a historical perspective on how blacks came to be depicted in such a negative fashion. Because of the struggle over the issue of slavery, his teachers said, the anti-abolitionists launched a massive vilification campaign against blacks that was revived after Reconstruction. He decided he would get on the other side of the camera and start making films that would correct this image.
It fell to John Hope Franklin to combine the historical perspective of Mr. Cripps with the personal approach of Mr. Greaves.
As a young man working on his Ph.D. dissertation 55 years ago in Raleigh, N.C., Dr. Franklin told the audience that he would regularly pass a courtly gentleman outside the courthouse. The gentleman always greeted Franklin with a warm smile.
The young graduate student was forced to reevaluate the significance of the man's cordial expression, however, when he found out his identity. It was Thomas Dixon, author of The Clansman, the very source of Griffith's racist version of Reconstruction. Far from offering a smile of welcome, Franklin concluded, Dixon's smile probably was more a reflection of his secret delight at keeping "the likes of me" out of any governmental office more influential than "a Jim Crow cubbyhole in the State Archives."
But Dixon's smile would have changed to a frown had he known that a cubbyhole was all Franklin needed. It was the start of a distinguished career that would enable him, among many other accomplishments, to marshall the facts to contradict Dixon's fabrications.
"The long reach of 'The Birth of a Nation' is nowhere seen and felt so much as in the picture of Reconstruction that continues today to dominate the thinking and even the writing of most lay persons and indeed too many professional historians who labor apparently under the spell of Thomas Dixon and 'Birth of a Nation,' professor Franklin said. "It is as if a certain picture of Reconstruction must be perpetrated in order to bar permanently African Americans from positions of public trust in the United States."
Among other things that reflected a "profound ignorance" of actual events, Griffith depicted a tide of corrupt black rule in Southern legislatures after the Civil War.
"No such thing happened," Dr. Franklin said.
Like everything else, even the corruption was reserved for whites. "In 1879, for example, in Georgia, the state treasurer, comptroller general and commissioner of agriculture resigned or were impeached. In 1883 the treasurers of Tennessee and Virginia disappeared with $400,000 and $200,000 respectively. Each of these white men was a confederate veteran active in a movement to restore honesty in government," Dr. Franklin said.
He concluded saying that "the only value that 'Birth of a Nation' has lies in its enormous contribution to the development of cinematography." He quoted Walter Lippmann's remark that "no one who had seen the film could ever hear the name [Griffith] again without seeing those white horses."
The horses, bearing members of the Ku Klux Klan, came at the audience straight out of the screen in a head-on tracking shot. The effect was electric. When the film was first released, audiences reportedly ducked to avoid being run over. Little did they know they had been hit already.
Craig D'Ooge is media director in the Public Affairs Office.