Facts about Birth of a Nation Play at the Colonial

Source: Mrs K.J. Bills, ‘Facts about Birth of a Nation Play at the Colonial’, The Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition), 11 September 1915, p. 3

Text: Facts about Birth of a Nation Play at the Colonial

One Who Has Seen and Knows About the Early Days the Author Tries to Falsely Depict Tells It Like It Was

I went to see the “Birth of a Nation” – not because I wanted to see it, but to be able to criticize intelligently. It is impossible to know what a play is unless one is an eye witness. I had heard so much said for and against the play I was determined to see for myself. There is nothing in the first part to which any reasonable person would object. It deals with historical facts which hold a person almost spellbound.

The second part – well, it is such an exaggeration that to a person who really knew and lived during that period it is not at all interesting. It is false from beginning to end. It is meant to create a greater race prejudice than already exists between the races. I shall mention some of the false impressions: Was there ever a congress composed entirely of Negroes who passed laws to govern all the whites in the South? Was there ever a time when the southern white people were at all as submissive to the blacks as this picture would have people believe? Does anyone believe that after the war the Negroes had no other ambition than to marry white women? Someone has said we as a race have enough hardships heaped upon us without creating a picture which actually lies. I wonder if Mr. Griffin [sic] lived during those days, and does he really remember things as they were.

The outrages of the Ku Klux were nothing like the picture shows them to be. There was no noise, no fast horseback riding, no clash between them and the Negroes. It is true they went around on horseback, but very quietly, like thieves. No one knew or heard any horses’ feet. I remember well when a small child the Ku Klux came to my father’s cabin. They knocked quietly, called him by name and made him open the door. Though they were masked, he knew their voices, for they were some of the gentlemen of his master’s family. They asked for his gun. He gave it to them. They left as quietly as they came. They went to every other Negro cabin and did the same thing. There was no resistance, no fighting.

The part showing the black man chasing the little girl, compelling her to jump off a high place and kill herself, is meant only to stir up hatred. Nothing of this kind has ever happened since the world was created. the Negro has never been so brutal. Why was not some of this brutality shown while their masters were at war? It was then the Negroes had full charge of their masters’ families. They protected them as no other person would have done.

I cannot understand why this was not cut out by the censors. They claim to be so very particular. No other race but this black American race would stand for the exhibition of pictures which are mean to poison the mind as this picture is. The Irish, German, Jewish, Polish, Swedish or any other race would have wrecked the Colonial theater long ago. No judge or censor bureau would have permitted it if it were showing any other race than the Negro.

Comments: Mrs K.J. Bills was a suffragist and an occasional contributor to The Chicago Defender, a newspaper for African-American readers. The Birth of a Nation (USA 1915), based on the novel and play The Clansman by Thomas Dixon, was a feature film set during the American Civil War and the period immediately after. It was first released in February 1915. Its inflammatory scenes of supposed African-American behaviour and its lionising of the Ku Klux Klan aroused great controversy even while the film gained great praise and attracted huge audiences. There was a strong campaign from members of the African-American community to have the film censored or banned, and screenings were halted in some cities, including Chicago (though only temporarily). The film’s director D.W. Griffith was born in 1875, years after the Civil War, but his father had served as a Confederate army colonel. The Colonial was a combined movie house and variety theatre. My thanks to Beth Corzo-Duchardt for having brought this piece to my attention.

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