Dennis Drabelle, a contributing editor of Book World, writes frequently on film.
By Dick Lehr
PublicAffairs. 343 pp. $26.99
No red-blooded American of today would favor censoring works of art. But while reading Dick Lehr’s fascinating new book, “The Birth of a Nation,” you may find yourself rooting for just that, in the form of a clampdown on the landmark 1915 film of the same name. It’s a matter of historical context. At the time, numerous governmental bodies were using such vague standards as “hostile to the welfare of the general public” to chase shows and films out of theaters and to confiscate books and magazines sent through the mail. So if other works were being clobbered, why not “The Birth of a Nation,” with its bigoted portrayals of black Americans and its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan?
Getting “The Birth of a Nation” banned or censored was the goal of Monroe Trotter, the “crusading editor” of Lehr’s subtitle. Not only was he one of the first black men to attend Harvard, he stood near the top of his class all four years and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. After graduating in 1895, he expected to succeed in business but found himself stuck in clerical jobs. “I had been out of college and in real life but four years,” he later wrote, “when I realized that the Democracy which I had enjoyed at dear old Harvard was not secure for Americans of Color, just because of their pigmentation.” He and a partner, George Forbes, scraped together enough money to start their own newspaper, the Guardian. One of their aims was to offer an alternative to the accommodationist philosophy of the leading black spokesman of the era, Booker T. Washington. As Lehr points out, “Trotter and Forbes certainly did not mince words. They called Washington ‘the traitor within’ and ‘the great compromiser,’ ” to be contrasted with “manly Negroes” like themselves. So intent was Trotter on instilling black pride that the Guardian refused to run ads for products that straightened hair or lightened skin color.
The “legendary filmmaker” was D.W. Griffith, a native Kentuckian who had worked as a stage actor, with little distinction, and then wrote plays. He was no great shakes as a playwright, either, and when a friend suggested applying to be a movie director at a New York studio, Griffith reluctantly took the advice. In moviemaking, he finally found his metier. With the help of his ace cameraman, Billy Bitzer, and a gifted young actress, Lillian Gish, Griffith practically invented the grammar of film, perfecting such devices as close-ups and cross-cutting to set the mood and obtaining emotional effects. By 1913 he felt confident enough to strike out on his own, and he had grandeur in mind.
Before ever hearing of each other, Griffith and Trotter were linked in a striking way. Both men’s fathers had fought in the Civil War (on opposite sides, to be sure). Another interesting connection had to do with President Woodrow Wilson, whose election Trotter worked for in the 1912 campaign. Also a strong Wilson supporter that year was Thomas Dixon, a novelist who specialized in peddling the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War (slaves were generally happy and well cared for; the meddling Yankees trashed the principle of states’ rights and viciously destroyed the magnolia-scented Southern way of life). In Dixon’s novel “The Clansman,” the Ku Klux Klan was depicted not as the cabal of racist cross-burners and lynching thugs that it was, but as a liberating cavalry that released white Southerners from subjugation to carpetbaggers and office-holding blacks. Dixon and Griffith were old friends, and Griffith chose “The Clansman” as the basis for the cinematic extravaganza toward which he had been building, thereby setting himself on a collision course with Trotter.
The clash occurred in Boston, Trotter’s home town. He saw “The Birth of a Nation” and was appalled. The film came to town at the height of the high-minded squeamishness that made “banned in Boston” a slogan to be reckoned with. If “The Birth of a Nation” wasn’t stopped here, it probably wouldn’t be stopped at all. But Griffith was a shameless tactician. For example, he agreed to remove or at least abbreviate a scene in which a brutish former slave (played by a white actor in blackface) tries to rape a white woman, who leaps to her death rather than submit — and then went back on his word. Since the movie had a running time of more than three hours, it was quite a chore to persuade officers of the law to sit through a screening and observe that the offending scene was still intact.
The controversy featured mass demonstrations, beatings by the police, arrests and the participation of a new organization called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Occasionally someone would wonder if the remedy Trotter and company were demanding was really in their best interest. The Boston Journal asked rhetorically, “What should we think of a Southern city or state that forbade a film of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ to be presented?” But for the most part, the question on people’s minds wasn’t whether censorship was wise or consistent with the First Amendment, but who should prevail in Boston: insulted blacks or the businessmen who stood to make a profit from “The Birth of a Nation.”
Lehr handles his material with skill and sensitivity, and how the fracas ended should be left for him to tell. In the end, much like Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary “Triumph of the Will,” “The Birth of a Nation” became a masterpiece with an asterisk. Brilliant but sinister, to be viewed with care.