Writing History with Lightning: Racism in Early Hollywood

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Due to the fact that I often blog about movies and history, I have decided to share this following article with you, which was written as a research paper for a history course I took this semester, called Boom and Bust: The United States, 1870-1940. We were allowed to research and write about any topic in that time period as long as we could tie it into the “boom and bust” aspect of the course, which is why it makes references to such terminology hroughout. If anyone would like the complete bibliography used for writing this project, please contact me and I would be more than happy to furnish it for you. I also left in the many in-text citations.

I. Introduction

Today, many detractors of Hollywood proclaim that it is nothing more than a liberal paradise that cranks out agenda-driven, left-leaning films acting as propaganda to push a particular point of view. While the entertainment factor in currently-produced movies sometimes lacks in favor of very politically correct projects to appease the masses in this modern world, there was a time when Hollywood and the products put forth under it were a complete opposite of what we see today, with political correctness and liberalness replaced by racism, conservative politics, and hideous stereotypes, stretching across many different genres. The fact is, early Hollywood in America was a boom of racism, and some of the first major films, acting as blockbusters of the time, helped to ensure that portrayals of certain groups of people, mainly African Americans, would remain racist for decades to come, stretching from the early 1910’s and well into the late 1960’s and 70’s, depending on the studio. It not only portrayed them in a negative way, but was used to help keep them in an inferior place in society, all while raking in massive amounts of money at the box office.

However, this way of thinking did not just come out of nowhere overnight, but was sweltering for many years following the Civil War, before exploding to the masses via this new piece of technology: the moving picture. From that moment on, books that perhaps were not so accessible could be seen come alive with ease on the big screen, and the characters of minorities who were written about so poorly were now emblazoned in the mind of every American, and in such a terrible way. This is an incredible moment in history, where essentially one single film would shape an entire industry for more than fifty years and it still reverberates today.

II. Southern Way of Life Inspires Hollywood

Before taking a look at the one major film that started the racist craze in America, it is important to understand the times which these films were being made in, and also the back-story and history behind them, and where the creators came from. As most stories came out of a south devastated by war (and in some cases, one could argue is still recovering today), it is their day-to-day life and social interactions that need to be looked at. In Confederates in the Attic, Tony Horwitz paints a picture of what some areas of the south are still like today—still reeling from a war fought more than 150 years ago. He notes the prevalence of the Ku Klux Klan in some backwoods areas, and how people down there talk about “The War” as if it was still being fought. The Civil War is and was a “way of life”, and when it comes to racism and prejudice, that is often true as well (Horwitz, 1999). During his travels, which includes visits to every state that was once in the Confederacy, he notes how poor and sometimes poverty-stricken areas look, how people live in ramshackle homes and drive old pick-up trucks; how towns that once thrived are merely nothing more than dust-covered roads with empty businesses (Horwitz, 1999).

Now, where does the blame go for all of this? To the “Yankees”, of course. While people may have forgiven the north for the final result of the Civil War, they certainly did not forget. This anger, which would have been still seething in the early 1900’s when books-turned-blockbusters such as The Clansman (Thomas Dixon, 1905) which became The Birth of a Nation, and Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell, 1936), translated into denial, as the poor southern economy had to be historically revised to show off the “glory” of the “Old South” (Horwitz, 1999). It is almost as if by complete ignorance, southern writers re-wrote history. Because people of the time could only look down and see the south in its current state, they needed to create a fantasy world of what life was like in the old days, where every white was chivalrous, and/or a wealthy plantation owner, and of course, the slaves were obedient servants who enjoyed servitude to their masters. When it comes to African Americans, the majority of white people were still holding on to their past beliefs, and even if they changed their minds on slavery, still felt that black people were inferior.

While this had still been more than four decades following the Civil War, perhaps there was a reason why people still held on to these beliefs. Reconstruction was obviously a failure, and it strained relations already torn apart at the seams. However, where African Americans are concerned, author Shelby Foote ponders if the northern United States accidentally created the spark that would cause this surge of racism and hatred in later years. In an interview with Horwitz, he states, “Slavery was the first great sin of this nation. The second great sin was emancipation, or rather the way it was done. The government told four million people, ‘You are free. Hit the road’. Three-quarters of them could not read or write. The tiniest fraction of them had any profession they could enter” (Horwitz, 1999). This was the greatest mistake of Reconstruction, and this refusal to help newly-freed blacks educate themselves and find work essentially created the stereotype that southern writers would use, of black men who were useless except when slaves, because they could not read, write, or work an honorable profession, though it was not at all their own fault.

III. The Birth of a Nation

By 1915, a new technology was sweeping across America, and that was the advent of the motion picture. For the first time, something other than the written word or printed cartoon could be used to promote an agenda, and no time was wasted doing that, not just in America, but around the world. While in later years, Sergei Eisenstein would glorify communism in Russia, using exceptionally well-made movies to promote his politics, earlier on, director D.W Griffith filmed The Birth of a Nation, a silent epic based on The Clansman by Thomas Dixon. While no one argues that the Civil War (or end of it) gave birth to a new America, what is debatable is the extremely racist portrayal of African Americans in the film. While black actors were hardly ever used to portray black characters at this time, and consisted of white men or women in blackface, their actual characterization stunned people back then as it does today. In this film, aside from being uneducated as specified earlier, they are sex-starved, half-crazed animals, with an insatiable hunger for white women (Griffith, 1915). They are seen as evil and maniacal, as if sub-human. The protagonists in the film are the Ku Klux Klan, who come riding into battle to save the white race from black and northern-white pollution (Griffith, 1915).

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While the film is indeed a work of fiction, this heroic portrayal of the Klan struck such a nerve with the American people, that it single-handedly created a “re-birth” of an organization that had been dead since the 1870’s (Foner, 1989). The original Klan, while created to target northern carpetbaggers and try to prevent blacks from voting eventually grew too violent to include lynching blacks, and was disbanded by its own creators, where it would lay dormant until roughly 1915 (Foner, 1989). Following The Birth of a Nation, interest was restored. It was as if what was seen on screen was fact, not fiction, and it inspired people for all the wrong reasons. In the documentary Ku Klux Klan: A Secret History, the aftermath of the film was profiled. While many people did indeed condemn the racism, overall, it was celebrated. The fact that the movie was actually so well-made, and introduced new camera techniques made it hard to knock down, and since the film could not be pushed away, the techniques became mainstream along with the horrific racism. The documentary notes how President Woodrow Wilson had it screened in the White House, and instead of condemning it, was quoted in saying, “This film is like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true” (Brummell, 1998). What he meant by being “true” could be up for debate without proper context, but his opinion of the film as a historical document was shared by many. Shortly after its release, riots broke out, and many black people were killed by angry and inspired whites who had just seen the film (Brummel, 1998).

The Birth of a Nation was groundbreaking on many levels, but mainly because it advanced the cause of a fantasy world, known as ‘The Lost Cause”, by creating its own history. In “Mammy Dearest”, a work written for the University of Virginia, Frank Diller elaborates, “…but despite such imbalances, the fundamental message remains clear: regional differences can be transcended when viewed in racialized terms. As new black powers arise during Reconstruction, white stability is threatened and these families begin to transcend regional identities and as they form such groups as the Ku Klux Klan. This new union not only protects white women from the threat of miscegenation but it forms the basis for a new American way of life. Michael Rogin explains Griffith’s ideological contribution…’was to join ‘the intimate and the epic’; he linked the personal and the historical through racial fantasy. Transcendentalizing the material birth pangs of immigrant, industrial America, Griffith supplied the post-bellum United States with its national myth of origins” (Diller, 1999). It is this same atmosphere that would allow future films, such as Gone with the Wind, to thrive. By creating a fantasy, the glory of the Old South, it was an early form of revisionist history, where an author or filmmaker could tell the world how all the terrible things they had heard were not true, and that it happened as it was portrayed in their work.

Thankfully today, The Birth of a Nation, while recognized as an early cinematic masterpiece from a technical point of view, is detested for the racism and stereotyping shown on-screen. However, when looking back at history, modern audiences try to marginalize any negativity associated with something so racist. This would be very wrong on our part, because that too would be revisionist history. The Birth of a Nation reflects the era it was made, and for this generation to ignore it would be just as bad as the generation who made it. In The Society Film Contained, Austin Graham quotes filmmaker Andrew Bergman when he says, “films are not viewed in a void, neither are they created in a void. Every movie is a cultural artifact… and as such reflects the values, fears, myths, and assumptions of the culture that produces it. There is something deeper in Depression-era films than mindless distraction: because movies are made on the assumption that they will appeal to a wide audience” (Graham, n.d.). He is absolutely right, because The Birth of a Nation appealed to such a large audience (which was not only southerners) that it created what we know as the blockbuster. Adjusted for inflation in 2013 by Tim McMahon for Inflation Data, Griffith’s epic would have made more than $469 million.

In the early 1910’s, films had been short 15-20 minute loose collections of scenes that might not have even had a flowing narrative, but by 1915, The Birth of a Nation became one of the first actual “stories”, running over three very entertaining and exciting hours, setting the standard for future epic films (Kyvig, 2002). Also very important, films which followed this set-up needed a more educated audience, since title-cards were used in the middle of scenes to convey dialogue or a change in the story, whereas previous short films contained only comical or action scenes that did not require reading or even much intelligence to be able to follow (Kyvig, 2002). The beneficiary of this switch would have of course been white people, which is why such stereotypical portrayals of blacks were enjoyed so much. In Daily Life in the United States: 1920-1940, David Kyvig proves this point, “By the 1920’s, surveys reported that high school and college graduates, although they together comprised only one-fourth of the nation’s population had become the largest component of the audience. The majority of film-goers were under thirty-five, and people with higher incomes were attending more often than workers and farmers. White men and women went to the movies with equal frequency…” (Kyvig, 2002). He also notes that the weekly attendance totals across the 15,000 theaters now in America reached 50 million viewers (Kyvig, 2002). This is where another boom comes in, not only for racism, but for actual economy. This was a new industry forced to be reckoned with, and as the years would go on, and films became more of an event, production value too would increase, leading to perhaps the most ignorant film of all-time: Gone with the Wind.

IV. Gone with the Wind

Perhaps the greatest movie to come out of the Golden Age of Hollywood, was Gone with the Wind, an epic four-hour film that detailed the American Civil War’s and early Reconstruction’s effects in Georgia. Based on a very popular novel by Margaret Mitchell of the same name, this film would shatter all kinds of box office records and take home numerous Academy Awards. As we move to 1939, portrayals of blacks had changed only slightly. In 1915, they were seen as barbaric and sub-human animals, but by the time Victor Fleming directed Gone with the Wind, Hollywood was a bit more kind to them, showing them as human, but being content with slavery and needy of their white masters. Their portrayal in this film is darkly and hideously comic, as watching it makes one so uncomfortable and uneasy that as an audience member in today’s world, we cannot help but chuckle to relieve ourselves of this gross misrepresentation. However, there is more here than simply a stereotypical portrayal, but the meaning behind what Mitchell wrote and why, and how that was carried over into the screenplay, and then projected for all the world to see. She, and others around her, considered her an “expert in black psychology”, therefore the perfect person to write such a book (Leff, 1999).

Aside from being obedient servants, their physical characteristics were also subjected to being stereotyped. In “Gone with the Wind and Hollywood’s Racial Politics”, Leonard Leff writes, “But some readers had found Mitchell’s treatment of race less a cartoon than a nightmare. She had, for example, depicted her leading black characters as content with slavery, uninterested in freedom. They often seemed more like pets than people. When Scarlett and Big Sam were reunited after the war, ‘his watermelon-pink tongue lapped out, his whole body wiggled, and his joyful contortions were as ludicrous as the gambolings of a mastiff.’ The ‘good’ black characters both loved and needed the whites. Though Mammy was one of the strongest characters in the novel, she could not manage Tara after the war without the guidance of her white masters. Her mind was too simple, not yet fully evolved, as readers could infer from a description of her as she looked at the once-grand plantation, her face ‘sad with the uncomprehending sadness of a monkey’s face’. Lacking the protection and moral schooling of whites, the ‘bad’ blacks were an unruly lot. Mammy and Big Sam called them ‘niggers.’ Mitchell called them ‘black apes’ who committed ‘outrages on women.’ Reconstruction brought out the worst in these characters. Passing through Shantytown one evening, Scarlett was attacked by ‘a squat black negro with shoulders and chest like a gorilla.’ He was ‘so close that she could smell the rank odor of him’ as he ripped open her bodice and ‘fumbled between her breasts.’ The Ku Klux Klan, according to Gone with the Wind, was a ‘tragic necessity’” (Leff, 1999). While these descriptions come from the novel, it did provide the source material that the film strictly adhered to. Leff also notes how black actors had turned out to the casting calls in droves, ignoring the many uses of the word “nigger” in the script and throwing their pride out the window because they knew this would be a big opportunity for them (Leff, 1999).

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This was the leading portrayal of blacks that America had seen time and time again, and while there were protests, they did not seem to be heard, as Gone with the Wind soared at the box office and made over a billion dollars when adjusted for inflation (McMahon, 2013). Still, just like The Birth of a Nation, this project was a direct reflection of the mindset of American society. The southern regions, ignoring past atrocities and the then-current poverty-like atmosphere in which some of them lived, the racism and subjugation of blacks had to be justified, and the world they all lived in mystified, churning out yet another fantasy world of perfect glory, which was, again, the Old South. With black people being free, and many whites fearful of them for various unfounded reasons, Mitchell, Griffith, Fleming, and others had to put out films and works such as this to reinforce the superiority of the white race, and further classify blacks into two categories, “the ‘good’ Negroes [who] 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’” (Diller, 1999). With Gone with the Wind being a Technicolor masterpiece, it showed that it was still perfectly fine for black people to be portrayed in this way.

V. Closing

The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind are just two examples of how history was revised in the early part of the 20th century to glorify white people, create a myth out of southern society, and keep blacks in their place all while making enormous amounts of money. However, it did not end there, as future films and media such as Song of the South, Amos ‘n Andy, and many others, some not limited to mistreatment of blacks, but of other minority groups (the American Indians stand out with their portrayals in many western movies). D.W Griffith and his film gave birth to a booming film industry that made racism normal, white Victor Fleming and his production team continued to foster an already existing and popular sentiment. Had these two films flopped, instead of being immense financial successes, perhaps the face of early Hollywood would have been changed, and such racist films would never have been made.

The blame cannot be placed entirely on Hollywood, because as shown, films have to represent the mindset of the majority of film-goers in order to get produced and then be successful. In a way, these movies are a portrait of an age, where times were changing and people were fearful of the future. Books were always a way to get ideas across, but a film made it possible to propagandize the masses. The fears and insecurities of the white race were played out on-screen, showing their superiority and further cementing blacks as inferior in America. After all, this was a nation that had not yet seen the civil rights movement, and no one at the time could have foreseen such freedoms and equality being right on the horizon in the 1960’s. In the end, films like The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind are both successes and failures. Successes for commercial reasons and because they helped to push film as an art-form with groundbreaking techniques and shooting, but a failure in the sense that it subjected black people in this country to decades of additional mistreatment and labeling, and made it all the more difficult for them to finally gain real freedom in America. Wilson said that it was like writing history with lightning, and he is correct, for nearly a hundred years following the first of the two films discussed, the pain it caused is still evident, to be forever seared into the American consciousness, and remain a time that we will hopefully never revert back to.

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2 thoughts on “Writing History with Lightning: Racism in Early Hollywood

  1. Kendall

    Just a comment, did you know Jews & Catholics belonged to the original KKK? The original KKK was dis-banded by Bedford Forrest & no longer exists.

    If you read Bernard Baruch’s Book “My Own Story” you’ll read where he found his dad’s (Simon Baruch, M.D.) KKK uniform under his Confederate Surgeon’s Uniform. Simon Baruch was the Surgeon or Assistant Surgeon of the 13th Mississippi Infantry. Don’t remember which now.

    IF you don’t know who Bernard Baruch was, do a Google. Baruch College exists today in NYC.

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