‘Birth of a Nation’ souvenir book
I had missed the book lying quietly and innocently there on a shelf in a glass case at the auction house. It was overshadowed by two noisy shelves above it with Shirley Temple photos, Shirley Temple books and an RCA recording of Shirley Temple telling the Bambi story, and above it, a Titanic scale model, Titanic photos, Titanic books and Titanic DVD.
The book – more a booklet with its oversized pages – was tattered along the edges, and it had faded over its nearly 100-year age. Its title, though, was still very clear:
D.W. Griffth’s The Birth of a Nation
Anyone who knows motion-picture history in this country is very familiar with Griffith’s 1915 racist movie that has been hailed as a cinematic masterpiece. Maybe it was, given the period of its own birth, but its blasphemous portrayal of African Americans at the time was terroristic.
I removed the book carefully from the case – knowing that although this frail souvenir represented an awful movie, it was historic. I gingerly flipped through the pages to see what pictures and words Griffith and his people had used to promote the film.
There were praises about Griffith’s vision and innovations in movie-making – his use of long shots, stills, and panoramic and sweeping views of broad shots interspersed with intimate closeups:
“It makes the most spectacular production of drama look like the work of village amateurs. It reduces to childishness the biggest things the theater can do. … Here was the epic of a proud brave people beaten into the dust and refusing to stay there,” historian and film director Rupert Hughes wrote.
Another wrote: “It is the advantage of the negro today to know how some of his ancestors misbehaved and how the prejudices in his path have grown there. … The ‘Birth of a Nation’ is a chronicle of human passion. It is true to fact and thoroughly documented. It is in no sense an appeal to lynch-law.”
As I turned page after page, I noticed that the photos were scenes from Civil War battles and the focus was on war and peace. The back of the book even contained an embossing of a dove of peace with its trademark olive branch. Missing were the Reconstruction scenes that drew prolonged protests from the then-six-year-old NAACP.
I wondered why they had been left out. In my research later, I learned that the movie was made in two parts with an intermission; the first recounted the war and the second, its aftermath. This book apparently focused only on the first part of the film.
I have never seen the complete movie, just bits and pieces, enough to know that it would be very difficult for me to sit through.
The movie was based on the books “The Clansman” and “The Leopard’s Spots” by Thomas Dixon Jr., who like Griffith thought the South got a lousy deal in the war and black people were the cause of its misery. It was a Confederate interpretation of the founding of the nation.
A silent film starring Lillian Gish (the only name I recognized), it told the story of two families – one from the South, the other from the North – and the impact that the war and Reconstruction had on them. The so-called black characters included “Mammy, their faithful old servant; Gus, a renegade negro; Jake, a black man faithful until death.”
There were no actual black people in the movie; those characters were white actors in black face. They portrayed black men as predators who spent their time ogling – and going after – white women, as in Gus, who in the movie drove a white woman to fling herself from a cliff to avoid his advances. Black men elected to Congress during Reconstruction were shown inside that august house of leadership with their bare feet propped on tables and eating fried chicken. It was a vicious slight against such men as Blanche K. Bruce and Hiram Revels, both from Mississippi, and P.B.S. Pinchback of Louisiana. Here’s a print of some of those distinguished men.
The savior of the country, according to the movie, was the Ku Klux Klan, which terrorized black people for decades, and with their lawlessness intimidated and killed them at will. The movie spurred an increase in Klan membership, and the group even used it to recruit new members.
But African Americans didn’t exactly take the movie silently. While thousands of whites plopped down $2 (a big sum when most films cost 25 cents) to see it when it opened first in Los Angeles and New York, the NAACP and its supporters waged a campaign to ban it, and later to have some of its brutal anti-black scenes removed.
It was banned in a few places, and protested in others. Scholar W.E.B. DuBois wrote vehemently against it in the Crisis, the NAACP magazine, while newspaperman William Trotter and supporters protested by trying to buy tickets when it came to Boston. Other opponents who had managed to get inside disrupted the showing. They kept up their protests.
Despite the protests, the movie went on to become one of the most popular and highest-grossing films ever produced. In 1998, the film was named #44 among the 100 best in the last century by the American Film Institute, but was removed a decade later.
In 1920, black director Oscar Micheaux filmed “Within Our Gates,” which was considered the black man’s version of Griffith’s film.
At auction, I waited around to see how much the book would sell for. It went for a little more than the entire Shirley Temple lot, selling for $35.