"The Birth of a Nation'hood": Lessons from Thomas Dixon and D.W. Griffith to William Bradford Huie and the Klansman, O.J. Simpson's First Movie (1)
Richardson, Riche, The Mississippi Quarterly
The film Birth of a Nation, based on the novel The Klansman [sic], gathered up and solidified post-Civil War America's assumptions of and desires for white supremacy. The Simpson spectacle has become an enunciation of post-Civil Rights discourse on black deviance. Both of these sagas have race at their nexus. Not in spite of but because of the overdetermined claims: that race was "inserted" in the trial, or that the trial "became" about race, or that it degenerated into a racial referendum, it is clear that the Simpson official narrative, like Birth of a Nation, is ruled by race. Like Birth of a Nation, the case has generated a newer, more sophisticated national narrative of racial supremacy. But it is still the old sham white supremacy forever wedded to and dependent upon faux black inferiority. **
The official story, has thrown Mr. Simpson into [a] representative role. He is not an individual who underwent and was acquitted from a murder trial. He has become the whole race, needing correction, incarceration, censoring, silencing; the race that needs its civil rights disassembled; the race that is sign and symbol of domestic violence; the race that has made trial by jury a luxury rather than a right and placed affirmative action legislation in even greater jeopardy. This is the consequence and function of official stories: to impose the will of a dominant culture. It is Birth of a Nation writ large--menacingly and pointedly for the 'hood. (2)
THOUGH WILLIAM BRADVORD HUIE'S NOVEL TheKlansman (1967) provided one of the most provocative exposts of the Ku Klux Klan during the civil rights era and was the basis of the 1974 film by that same name in which O.J. Simpson debuted as an actor, today it is a book that appears to have been virtually forgotten. Few people seem to be reading, thinking, and writing about it, or teaching it. Even though he had a career spanning more than four decades, during which he variously served as a reporter, editor, literary magazine publisher, lecturer, and free-lance writer, and though he produced a voluminous body--twenty-one books--of fiction and non-fiction that sold more than 28 million copies, six of which were made into films, Huie himself seems to have suffered a similar fate. Most of his books are now out of print, the amount of criticism that has been written on them is negligible, and he has yet to be the subject of a book-length biography. (3) Born November 13, 1910, in Hartselle, Alabama, Huie was perhaps best known in his lifetime for his persistent investigative work during the civil rights era in the South, and particularly for the controversial style of "checkbook journalism" that he used to secure from the alleged assailants stories about the murders of Emmett Till, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Cheney. (4)
Early on, the novel The Klansman hypothesizes that in the minds of white Southerners, anxieties about the Civil Rights Movement were at bottom fueled by a fear of and panic about interracial sex and homosexuality. The 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, the novel suggests, was imagined by these white Southerners as having been little more than a large public orgy for "Punks, whores, scum, degenerates, kooks, atheists and perverts, all controlled by Communists." (5) In the opening pages, Big Track Bascomb, the sheriff of the fictive Ellenton, Alabama, and his son Allen, who are on a trip to Montgomery and Selma two weeks after the march to assess evidence of the event's licentiousness, are shown enlarged photographs of "the arms of white females around the necks of Negro males; the hands of Negro males on the rumps and breasts of white females; a Negro male and a white female kissing and 'sucking each other's tongues'; a Negro male and a white male kissing; and a Negro male and a white male lying under the tree with a hand in the other's crotch" (p. 9). Big Track's response to Allen's questions about the reductive logic of the march's detractors is that "I guess there was a few good people in the march. Just mixed up and thought they might be doin' some good. But in a white man's mind all this agitation comes down to is frigging" (p. 14).
As Big Track travels to the spot where white Detroit housewife Viola Liuzzo was slain, the novel suggests that a panic about sexual intermingling of black men and white women ultimately led to her murder by the Ku Klux Klan in the aftermath of the march. (6) Furthermore, the novel invokes Liuzzo's death when it invites us to recognize that the especial hatred reserved for white priests suspected of using the cloth as a guise to establish intimate relations with black women also led to the murder of "one nigger, one white woman, and one white preacher ... around Selma" (p. 62). However, Jon Daniels, the white priest likely recalled here, was actually killed in Lowndes County, Alabama, several months later in August of 1965, shortly after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. (7)
The plot thickens when Loretta Sykes, a black woman who grew up in a cabin on the mountain of white liberal benefactor Breck Stancill, returns home from Chicago to nurse her mother. Almost immediately, because she allowed movement supporters to come into her home, Loretta is suspected of conspiring to help set up a stronghold for the "agitators" on Stancill's mountain. These "agitators" include the black student activist Charles Peck and the white Reverend Josh Franklin. The latter, according to the Klan's poster that features his photograph, "Can always be found in a nigger girl's bed on Saturday nights" (p. 31). As a result, Sheriff's Deputy Butt Cutt Cates picks up Loretta and takes her to jail while Big Track and Allen are away. After pondering possible strategies that might be used to deter the movement that is growing in the county, the Action Squad members of the Ku Klux Klan agree to subject Loretta to a public rape in the jail by a retarded black man named Lightning Rod, who has a reputation for brutalizing black women, and who is often called on and paid to attack them in rape shows for the entertainment of white men in the county. (8) This is an option that Klan members find appealing because it "won't show" or attract media attention like the "burning, dynamitin' and killing's already been done" (p. 62; emphasis in the original). It is viewed as an act that will "allow two niggers the opportunity to prove again that niggers are bestial" (p. 64) and an act that is necessary "to help defend a Christian way of life" (p. 67). This logic conforms to Angela Davis's observation in her classic essay "Rape, Racism and the Myth of the Black Rapist" that
The fictional image of the Black man as rapist has always strengthened its inseparable companion: the image of the Blackwoman as chronically promiscuous. For once the notion is accepted that Black men harbor irresistible and animal-like sexual urges, the entire race is invested with bestiality.... Viewed as 'loose women' and whores, Black women's cries of rape would necessarily lack legitimacy." (9)
The lynching of a black man named Willie Washington for the rape of a married and pregnant white woman named Nancy Poteet, we are told, is an incident that drew national attention to the county in the previous year. In the novel, her rape, contrasted with Loretta's, becomes the instrument whereby Huie attempts to dismanfle historical sexual stereotypes of both white and black female identity and the means by which he most directly engages D.W. Griffith's 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, and the 1905 novel by Thomas Dixon entitled The Clansman, on which this film is based. Huie's novel also takes pains to stress the extent to which both texts continued to be revered by Ku Klux Klan members in the 1960s and to underscore more generally the persistence of Klan activity in the South. In figuring the investments of a semi-literate Butt Cutt in the propaganda espoused in passages from the Dixon novel and posted in public places around town, The Klansman relates these frameworks to the rape of Loretta. The novel offers Breck Stancill, the last living member of a cotton-farming dynasty, as the protagonist, emphasizing the struggle that he endures as he attempts to live among and support blacks on his mountain within a racially polarized social order. These are choices that cause him to be hated, regarded as a race traitor and treated as an outcast in Ellenton. However, beyond these issues, one of the main agendas of the novel is to foreground the trauma of black female rape within a narrative schema that addresses the historical and contemporary politics of race, gender, and sexuality in the South.
Therefore, it is fascinating that the 1974 film that this novel inspired, whose screenplay was written by Millard Kaufman and Samuel Fuller, ultimately acknowledges but subordinates this concern to focus primarily on an examination of race, masculinity, and the specter of lynching and to interrogate one of the most looming stereotypes of black male identity: the myth of the black rapist. The Klansman is an interesting popular artifact to reconsider in light of its examination of the black rapist as a product of the Southern cultural imagination and of the attempt to chronicle the residual impact of this sexual ideology--which emerged in the nineteenth century in the period after Emancipation--on black men in the South in the twentieth century. However, I am also intrigued by why the shifts to such a forthright and assertive engagement of this theme occur in the film. I believe that we can understand them as a response to both the discourses of black power and blaxploitation. Furthermore, an exploration of the particular strategies that the film uses, in ways that both intersect with and diverge from those of Huie's novel, offers a means to critique and respond to D.W. Griffith and Thomas Dixon's race and gender ideologies.
At the time of its release, the director Terence Young situated the film as "a denunciation of ... crass, stupid bigotry and intolerance" and as "a cinematic statement against terrorism or counter-terrorism of any sort--black or white." (10) In spite of these intentions, The Klansman, which was filmed on site in Oroville, California, with an all-star cast that included Linda Evans, Richard Burton, Lola Falana, and Lee Marvin, was a colossal failure, viewed as being too saturated with racial melodrama. (11) Vincent Canby of the New York Times remarked that The Klansman is "one of those rare films that are not as bad as they seem when you're watching them" and as "a thoroughly clumsy adaptation of William Bradford Huie's novel" with a "primitively written script" and "easy movie melodrama." (12) Roy Frumkes of Films in Review categorized The Klansman as the kind of film that "is so bad it's interesting." (13) Most bitingly, A.D. Murphy of Variety situates the film as "a perfect example of screen trash that almost invites derision" and as a "fetid carcass." (14) I want to suggest that in spite of its critical shortcomings, The Klansman has much to teach us not only in light of its examination of race, gender and sexuality in historical racialist narratives in film and literature, but also to the extent that it is shaped by and provides a commentary on black liberation ideology. This …
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Publication information: Article title: "The Birth of a Nation'hood": Lessons from Thomas Dixon and D.W. Griffith to William Bradford Huie and the Klansman, O.J. Simpson's First Movie (1). Contributors: Richardson, Riche - Author. Journal title: The Mississippi Quarterly. Volume: 56. Issue: 1 Publication date: Winter 2002. Page number: 3+. © 1998 Mississippi State University. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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