There were riots and public demonstrations in Boston and New York and protests in major cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, as well as many smaller places, especially in the Midwest and East. . . .Though the right to freedom of expression eventually undermined liberal opposition to the film, the attacks on Birth of a Nation are credited with raising black awareness in many cities and helping particularly the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] to consolidate black and liberal support for its causes.(1)In Slow Fade to Black, Thomas Cripps argues that the NAACP's campaign against Griffith's epic outlived its political use since members fought the film well after World War II but he also acknowledges that this movement empowered the fledgeling organization:
It provided the first occasion on which black men, long organized into local groups, stretched their muscles across the nation. It reminded them that the "progressive era" had been for whites only and had ended in Jim Crow government, lynching, and the seedtime of a new Ku Klux Klan. It provided a model against which to test white racism. . . . It became a useful rhetorical weapon in any negotiation over film content and casting. In short, it provided black assimilationists with a black weapon.(2)
|When David O. Selznick bought the film rights to Margaret Mitchell's best-selling Civil War epic Gone With the Wind in 1936, he was mindful of the protests surrounding Griffith's work. As he translated the tale of Scarlett O'Hara in wartime and Reconstruction onto the screen, Selznick recognized the racial politics of film established by challenges to The Birth of a Nation. Leonard Leff explains in his essay, "David Selznick's Gone With the Wind: ‘The Negro Problem'" that this required a far more calculated effort from the producer than the final results might indicate. The first problem Selznick faced was the way Mitchell's novel depicted African-Americans. Leff writes:|
Mitchell's treatment of postwar blacks, for example, divides the race: the "good" Negroes retained their loyalty and servility to former owners, and the "bad" ones--running wild, "either from perverse pleasure in destruction or simply because of their ignorance" (p. 654)--caused trouble for white and black alike.(3)Leff notes that a similar position was articulated in Griffith's work and subscribed to by many people throughout the 1930's. The difference between the era when The Birth of a Nation was released and the contemporary adaptation of Mitchell's work can be understood in terms of the vocal opposition that would decry such a film when examined by their progressive standards. In addition to protesters and growing organizations such as the NAACP, Selznick was aware of the watchful eye of the black press and supervisors from the Production Code Administration (PCA) a Hollywood-based organization "created in 1934 to regulate the moral and social content of motion pictures" (Leff, p. 147). Leff attributes Selznick's heightened awareness to racial sensitivity to international events as well:
[T]he movie capital's increased awareness of Germany's racial persecution--the subject, incidentally, of numerous editorials in Negro publications--made many of its predominantly Jewish leaders, Selznick among them, especially eager to avoid offending blacks. In short, as the producer of Gone With the Wind interpreted it, the Negro in the late 1930's was poised to exert his influence upon American motion pictures. (p. 149)To demonstrate this awareness, Leff points to a memo David Selznick sent to Sidney Howard, the writer charged with adapting Mitchell's work for the screen, on January 6, 1937. One pressing question about the treatment centered on the appearance of the Ku Klux Klan, who avenge Scarlett O'Hara after she is attacked by renegades. Selznick makes his position clear:
Here we come to a very touching point and I am hopeful that you share my feelings on it. . . . I personally feel quite strongly that we should cut out the Klan entirely. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to clarify for our audiences the difference between the old Klan and the Klan of our times. (A year or so ago I refused to consider remaking The Birth of a Nation, largely for this reason. Of course we might have shown a couple of Catholic Klansmen, but it would be rather comic to have a Jewish Kleagle; I, for one, have no desire to produce any anti-Negro film either. In our picture I think we have to be awfully careful that the Negroes come out decidedly on the right side of the ledger, which I do not think should be difficult).(4)Leff attributes Selznick's distinction between the two Klans to the influence of Griffith's earlier work: "Racial bookkeeping, for several reasons was problematic. Like so many Americans, Selznick had absorbed much Reconstruction lore from The Birth of the Nation." (p. 147). In this sense, cinematic coding not only mythified African-Americans but the seemingly pure white figures who stood in opposition to them. The presence of the "bad Negros" demanded a white solution.
|When Selznick comments on not wanting to remake Griffith's work, the producer demonstrates the way in which racial ideology has been developed into religious distinctions in the new and more exclusive Klan. This new organization, which hates Jews and Catholics as well as racial minorities, also contributes to the mythology of the early group by making them look as if they weren't that bad after all. Selznick's deference to the Klan of the movies demonstrates the way that organization has been incorporated into American culture and insulated from attacks on The Birth of a Nation itself.|
The extent of Hollywood inflexibility may be seen in a cursory survey of the roles played by the "Hollywood Negro." As the black world in the 1920s grew more aggressive, demanding, and unified through the NAACP, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the Urban League, and the "buy-where-you-can-work" campaigns, the Hollywood Negro grew more stylized and fictive. From 1915 to 1920 roughly half the Negro roles reviewed in Variety were maids and butlers, and 74 percent of them were known in the credits by some demeaning first name. In the 1920s servile roles reached 80 percent of all black roles. By the 1930s they had dropped by half, but casting policy still restricted Negro roles by allowing Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, and other performers to appear only "as themselves" with no investment in the plot. Such billing accounted for 15 percent of Negro roles. Added to these were the nameless hordes of painted tribesmen who fell before the stout arm of Tarzan.(5)Cripps' history demonstrates the layers of insulation surrounding black stereotypes and the number of years it took to identify them as unacceptable and begin improving upon them. It also shows the ways in which a positive depiction of African-American in films might differ among perceptions of African-Americans wanting the role and producers who include it in the first place. This is especially clear when the film in question is set against the backdrop of Reconstruction. Although Selznick believed that the depiction of the Ku Klux Klan was complicated by the contemporary organization of the same name and therefore, not worth putting in the film adaptation of Gone With the Wind, some of D.W. Griffith's black stereotypes were still acceptable and might even be considered improvements over the roles such as the anonymous savages black actors were portraying in many mainstream American films.