While he was no fan of slavery Thomas Dixon like many of his contemporaries believed wholeheartedly in White superiority and the separation of the races. In 1902 he published The Leopard’s Spots his first in a trilogy that portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroes battling against the forces of evil -which consisted mostly of freed slaves and carpetbaggers – in order to save the South from the horrors of Reconstruction.
3 years later came part two entitled the Clansman. Dixon warned against power mad White politicians bent on leading Black people to rise up and become masters of the South. Race relations were incredibly volatile during this time and Dixon pushed every button out there. The result was a popular best seller and an even more popular play that drew record crowds and led to more than a few riots.
In 1915 D.W. Griffith adapted the book to the big screen. He too was a son of the South having grown up in Virginia listening to the same types of stories describing how a wonderful way of life was forever destroyed. Indeed in the first half of Birth of a Nation Griffith lovingly recreates this antebellum world in painstaking detail.
But Griffith like Dixon went above and beyond when it came to pushing the racial buttons. Unlike Dixon however the canvas Griffith painted on had the power to move masses of people across the United States and the rest of the world beyond anything that had ever gone before. Griffith used the full range of what movies could do along with his unquestioned talent as a filmmaker and storyteller to make sure his audience got the point.
That point being that Reconstruction was an affront to every White Southerner and the Nation as a whole. A Pandora’s box that when opened unleashed crazed Northerners bent on punishing the region for seceding from the Union and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. But it had to be more than that. Griffith understood he needed to shock and the only way to do that was call upon the exact same racial stereotypes as Dixon and if possible exploit them even further.
The scenes of marauding and corrupt freedmen roaming the town as well as the predominately black legislature portrayed as the ultimate in buffoonery and incompetence were good starts to raising the temperature of movie going audiences of the day but Griffith still needed something to drive home the point. What he needed was the ultimate fear.
The very thought of any kind of connection between Black Men and White Women was the ultimate taboo. In many parts of the country it was a lynching offense. Griffith used that taboo with unapologetic force. A forerunner of in your face filmmaking. Lillian Gish frightened out of her mind by the crazed advances of a Mulatto. The Black Soldiers in a unbelievable state of frenzy in an effort to get at a white family (with white women) on the other side of the door.
By this time in the movie there’s little doubt that people were looking for some heroes right about now. Who could save the South from this scourge which threatened to engulf everyone and everybody? You guessed it The Ku Klux Klan and White audiences cheered mightily upon their arrival.
All the button pushing paid huge dividends for Griffith as Birth of a Nation became one of the first movie blockbusters in American history. President Woodrow Wilson stated “It’s like writing history with lightning.”
Not quite. In reality Reconstruction actually brought many needed changes to the South including extending the right to vote beyond Southern aristocracy, the abolishing of debtor’s prison and the establishing of public education among other things. This is the curious side of Reconstruction. It really did a lot of good and went a long way along with the Civil War to ending the feudal system that in essence enslaved Blacks and Whites.
As for the history of sexual relations between the races it’s a curious one to say the least. Many families in the South have a history that is intertwined between the races. It is all well and good to talk about purity, segregation, white blood and black blood but slavery, the virtual pillar of the antebellum South, also created a lot of families and ancestors who were out of step with what was in many instances the law of the land.
D.W. Griffith was probably not blind to any of these facts. Like any great showman he understood that controversy sells and that a good story needs a good villain. Through his power of storyteller and mastery of the medium Griffith brought that villain to life and seared it into the psyche of movie goers. Like Dixon he felt the need to lie about Black People and history in order to make that point.