Hollywood’s struggle to do right by Black people has been going on since its inception. Its continued struggle to include Black folks either in its recognition of them or hiring practices should come as no surprise to students of history.
What we know as the Hollywood movie industry was launched after the 1915 release of one of the most racist films of all time, The Birth of a Nation, and its most innovative techniques were founded by one of the most racist directors in Hollywood history, D.W. Griffith.
The Birth of a Nation reinvented and retold the story of the Reconstruction era in a way that it made it appear that slavery was benign and that Blacks were incapable of governance and were savage brutes who were only interested in wine, White women and song. The movie, based on a book titled The Clansman, depicted the Ku Klux Klan as heroes who came and rescued the reconstructed South from the freed Blacks by terrorizing them into a kind of neo-slavery.
It was the first feature-length film ever recorded and was a three-hour long tear jerker that depicted the poor Whites being displaced and disenfranchised by the newly freed Blacks. Blacks were portrayed as being happy as slaves and the Civil War was seen as an unfortunate conflict fought heroically by the Confederates.
The movie implied that Blacks could not think for themselves and that ideas about equal rights and the right to vote, were foisted on them by the White abolitionists. It particularly takes issue with Thaddeus Stevens, one of the progressive Senators who encouraged Reconstruction.
Griffith takes every opportunity to make Black folks look bad. He depicts Black elected officials as inept, and in one scene Black legislators are shown taking off their shoes and eating chicken and drinking during a legislative session. The only decent Black folks are those that defend their former masters.
The movie even shows the backward Black folks (usually played by over-weight Black women servants) beating up on so-called uppity Black folks who want equality. And Blacks are not in the film but played by White actors in Black face. In essence, for Black folks, it may just as well have been the first horror film.
But the real spark for the revolt of Southern Whites is the newly freed Black man’s supposed claim to the right of intermarriage. This idea of White racial purity, which one of the title cards calls the “Aryan birthright,” is also at the heart of the film.
The KKK rides into the film as saviors of the White race. “The KKK, the organization that saved the South from the anarchy of Black rule,” read one title card.
The film literally helped launch a rebirth of the KKK as its numbers tripled after the launch of the film, which caused lots of rioting by Whites in the North. It is also important to note that near the end of the film, the KKK literally stops Blacks from voting and it is all given the approval at the end by the Lord himself.
Ironically, the film made cinematic history for its new technological developments including close-ups, zooming the camera in on faces, crosscutting in dramatic Civil War battle scenes, panoramic filming (not just taking a single, static shot), which according to one film expert, “heightened the power, the impact, the drama, the emotional effects of the film.” According to several sources, the movie was the highest grossing movie of all times; it cost $110,000 to make and grossed into the tens of millions, which if adjusted for inflation would surpass any modern blockbuster.
“It is at the foundation of what would become Hollywood. So if this is at the root, then it shouldn’t be a surprise when in the last few weeks, there have been discussions about the lack of people of color being nominated for the Oscars,” explained, Todd Boyd, a professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. “In my mind, this is very much a branch that grew out of the tree that was Birth of a Nation.”
Proof of why Hollywood’s racist legacy has endured can be gleamed from this absolutely twisted review in 2013 by New Yorker movie critic Richard Brody: “The movie’s fabricated events shouldn’t lead any viewer to deny the historical facts of slavery and Reconstruction. But they also shouldn’t lead to a denial of the peculiar, disturbingly exalted beauty of Birth of a Nation, even in its depiction of immoral actions and its realization of blatant propaganda.
“The worst thing about Birth of a Nation is how good it is,” Brody continues. “The merits of its grand and enduring aesthetic make it impossible to ignore and, despite its disgusting content, also make it hard not to love.”
So, evil is a thing to be admired and adored? And we wonder why Hollywood has shown Black folks the back of its hand. Obviously Hollywood does not recognize that adoration can lead to emulation.
Mel Reeves welcomes reader response to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mel Reeves was the community editor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder until he passed away on January 6, 2022. He had a long and storied history working at the MSR.
Find more about Reeve’s life and legacy here: spokesman-recorder.com/category/remembering-mel-reeves.