I have recently been engaged in a re-read of Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman – the novel that inspired D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.
This book is undeniably racist. But riddle me this. Is Dixon writing with historical accuracy from his perspective or intentionally manipulating history with an eye toward a cultural/political agenda? I’ve heard both sides of the argument – generally the latter. Thoughts?
I have just recently learned that novelist, minister, lecturer, and all-around swell egg Thomas Dixon, Jr. threw his hat in the movie business ring early in the 20th century. You will most likely remember Dixon from some of his overly sentimentalized and virulently racist depictions of the old South, the Civil War, and Reconstruction in such novels as The Leopard’s Spots and The Clansman. Well, D. W. Griffith’s film adaptation of these books – The Birth of a Nation – was so immeasurably popular (and simultaneously controversial) when it debuted in 1915 that Dixon thought he might cash in on the film’s success and make some movies of his own.
This was news to me. But it turns Dixon set up shop down the street from my house. Yes indeed friends, I drive by the former location of the Dixon Studios, Hollywood nearly every day. Located at Sunset Blvd and Western Ave, the lot was only a matter of a few blocks from from where Griffith shot much of Birth, and thus a few blocks (in the other direction) from the future location of the Harristorian Archives.
Dixon was a largely unsuccessful in the “business” as we call it here in Hollywood. In 1916, he directed The Fall of a Nation (hmmm….) that warned against pacifism, and several others based on his novels. His production company eventually went bust, and he moved on to other endeavors in 1926.
These days there are no traces of the former studio – just some East Hollywood sprawl. But if anyone out there has some images that they would like to share – send them on.
I have received a few questions lately about the unfavorable reports of D. W. Griffith’s epic 1915 film about the Civil War and Reconstruction, The Birth of a Nation. So often, modern scholars suggest that this film stood for the broad consensus at the time of its premiere. Granted, a fair number of Americans North and South saw this film as accurate history – that the well worn Lost Cause narrative and the travails of Reconstruction rang true in this film adaptation of Thomas Dixon’ s novels, The Leopard’s Spots and The Clansman.
But despite the film’s popularity and a certain level of acceptance for the film’s analytical bent, others did not take so warmly to Grifith’s “sensational photoplay” at all…especially Union veterans. The clip above is one of the film’s most notorious – it depicts a legislative session in the South Carolina statehouse during the Reconstruction period. Here we witness what some would claim was the absurdity of Black legislators. The racist stereotypes are all there – black lawmakers, shoeless, intoxicated, eating chicken and leering at white women. The hall erupts in near riotous fervor at the passing of a bill allowing interracial marriage – what white South Carolinians feared most.
To underscore reactions by those who had fought for, and thus celebrated Union and Emancipation, I have included a report from the magazine, The Moving Picture World – dated August, 1915.
A state-wide fight on “The Birth of a Nation” is urged by Col. J. M. Snyder, of Canton, 111., who is department commander of the Grand Army of the Republic In Illinois. Three reasons are offered for Its suppression, one of which is that it is not fair to the Union soldiers.
A copy of a resolution passed by a Chicago post has been sent to every post in Illinois with a request from the state commander that a similar resolution be adopted. The resolution is as follows:
“The George H. Thomas Post, No. 5, Department of Illinois. G. A. R., protests against the exhibition called ‘The Birth of a Nation.’
“First. Because It contains slanderous representations as to the soldiers who fought to preserve the Union, and caricatures the history of the war.
“Second. It represents the infamous Ku Klux Klun as a society of patriotic and chivalrous men.
“Third. Its whole Influence Is to excite and Intensify hatred of the negro race and to perpetuate sectional bitterness.”
The GAR were hardly impressed by this film, which is not hard to imagine.