Friday, February 08, 2008

February 8

The epic, racist melodrama Birth of a Nation premiered 93 years ago today. It was shown to a Los Angeles audience at the lavish Clune Auditorium on 8 February 1915; the Los Angeles Philharmonic accompanied the film, which spanned 12 reels and was seen by 2500 people on its opening night.

The silent film was directed by David Wark Griffith, who had been born to a family of former slaveholders in Oldham County, Kentucky. During the Civil War, Griffith's father Jacob organized the 1st Kentucky Cavalry and eventually ascended to the rank of colonel. During the war, the Griffith estate was burned to the ground. When the young filmmaker discovered a 1905 novel by Thomas Dixon entitled The Clansman, he was inspired “to tell the truth about the War between the States. It hasn't been told accurately in history books. Only the winning side in a war ever gets to tell its story”

One historian whom Griffith believed had narrated the tale properly was President Woodrow Wilson, who had befriended Thomas Dixon while they were both students at Johns Hopkins University. Wilson’s five-folume History of the American People (1902) depicted the rise of the Ku Klux Klan -- the subject of Dixon’s novel and Griffith’s film -- as a necessary stage in the pacification and redemption of the South.

As Dixon himself described his novel,
In the darkest hour of the life of the South, when her wounded people lay helpless amid rags and ashes under the beak and talon of the Vulture, suddenly from the mists of the mountains appeared a white cloud the size of a man's hand. It grew until its mantle of mystery enfolded the stricken earth and sky. An ‘Invisible Empire’ had risen from the field of Death and challenged the Visible to mortal combat.

How the young South, led by the reincarnated souls of the Clansmen of Old Scotland, went forth under this cover and against overwhelming odds, daring exile, imprisonment, and a felon's death, and saved the life of a people, forms one of the most dramatic chapters in the history of the Aryan race.
On 18 February 1915, Birth of a Nation became the first film ever to be screened at the White House. Among the attendees that night was Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, Edward White, who had never seen a motion picture before. In Thomas Dixon’s biography, Southern Horizons, the novelist uses third person voice to tell the story of how he persuaded Justice Edwards to attend the White House screening.
”You tell the true story of the Klan?',” White asked.
“Yes - for the first time.”
White removed his glasses and pushed his book aside, as he leaned towards Dixon and said in a low tone: “I was a member of the Klan, sir. Through many a dark night, I walked my sentinel's beat through the ugliest streets of New Orleans with a rifle on my shoulder. You’ve told the true story of that uprising of outraged manhood?”
“In a way I'm sure you'll approve,” the Reverend replied.
“I'll be there!” said White.
After Griffith’s last film, The Struggle, flopped in 1931, he became a recluse. He died in the Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles in July 1948, seven months after President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces of the United States.