Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

"As Citizens of Portland We Must Protest": Beatrice Morrow Cannady and the African American Response to D. W. Griffith's "Masterpiece"

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

"As Citizens of Portland We Must Protest": Beatrice Morrow Cannady and the African American Response to D. W. Griffith's "Masterpiece"

Article excerpt

Promoters of 'The Birth of a Nation' film petitioned the city council again on last Wednesday morning for a rehearing to show the film in Portland. The editor of The Advocate was summoned and spoke against the film, pointing out that it was not only historically untrue but that it incited hatred between the races.

--Advocate, April 11, 1931

ON SATURDAY, AUGUST 28, 1915, a full-page advertisement promoting the Portland debut of The Birth of a Nation ran in the Evening Telegram. The silent film about the Civil War, Reconstruction, and rise of the Ku Klux Klan had taken eight months to shoot, featured a cast of eighteen thousand, and cost $500,000--more than ten times its initial budget. It took three hours to view the twelve reels, three times longer than other films playing in 1915. And, for the first time, theater owners set their top admission prices at two dollars. Portlanders were urged to act quickly to reserve seats at the Heilig Theatre on Southwest Broadway for one of two daily showings of "The Most Talked of Production in All the World."

Moviegoers may not have needed much coaxing. The film had been getting rave reviews since its February 8 premiere at Clune's Auditorium in Los Angeles and its subsequent East Coast debut at New York City's Liberty Theatre. The New York Times judged that the film included "many fine views from the standpoint of photography, those showing the nocturnal gatherings of the Ku-Klux Klan being unusually effective." An opening-night review in the Moving Picture World noted that "no picture presented in New York" had "elicited such spontaneous and frequent applause." The film's portrayal of the rise of the Klan particularly affected patrons, who "felt the grip of the story and sympathized with the work of the Ku Klux Klan battling against negro domination." Director-screenwriter D.W. Griffith and writer Thomas Dixon, Jr.--whose books and play, The Clansman, had inspired the film--were called from the theater wings to address the "capacity audience." Dixon called his colleague "the greatest director in the world," and Griffith "thanked the audience for the reception being given 'The Birth of a Nation.'" (1)

A second article in Moving Picture World was more restrained. Although W Stephen Bush acknowledged that Griffith's mastery in "creating and prolonging suspense to the agonizing point" was evident in his "treatment of the Ku-Klux Klan," he was critical of the film's "undisguised appeal to race prejudices." Francis Hackett, a reviewer for the New Republic, wrote that "as a spectacle" the film was "stupendous," but he objected to the motion picture because it was much more: "It is an interpretation, the Rev. Thomas Dixon's interpretation, of the relations of the North and South and their bearing on the negro." Hackett compared Dixon to a "yellow journalist" who writes inaccurate or misleading stories:

He is yellow because he recklessly distorts negro crimes, gives them a disproportionate place in life, and colors them dishonestly to inflame the ignorant and the credulous. And he is especially yellow, and quite disgustingly and contemptibly yellow, because his perversions are cunningly calculated to flatter the white man and provoke hatred and contempt for the negro.

Hackett also criticized the film's intertitles--the printed narration or dialogue displayed on the screen between scenes--for contributing to audience reactions:

The effect of these lines, reinforced by adroit quotations from Woodrow Wilson and repeated assurances of impartiality and goodwill, is to arouse in the audience a strong sense of the evil possibilities of the negro and the extreme propriety and godliness of the Ku Klux Klan.

Blending excerpts from Wilson's A History of the American People with historical quotes, fictional narrative, and "faithful" reconstructions of events such as the surrender at Appomattox lent presidential authority to the picture and added to the belief that the film was historically accurate. …

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