|Birth of a Nation and O Brother Where Art Thou:
and Their Portrayal of the KKK
By: James Capps
Ancient History in Cinema
Falls and Rydberg-Cox
November 22, 2005
After the Civil War ended, America was still in a state of upheaval, especially in the South. The period immediately following the war until 1877 is known as Reconstruction(rebuilding the South). Whites in the South were angered by the newfound freedoms of the former slaves. They were able to get wage earning jobs, though these jobs were hard work with low pay. The plantation owners had lost their labor supply, so many of them fell into debt or lost their land (D’Souza, 171). The most traumatic loss for Whites was to have Blacks in political power. Many served as senators or other state and federal officials. The North also showed hostility to Blacks after the war. They prevented them from joining labor unions and competing with Whites for jobs. The unions they were allowed to join, however, were segregated. In the South, to keep Blacks under some sort of control, Southern activists established the Black Codes, laws that restricted blacks from getting certain jobs or required them to get licenses for other jobs(D’Souza, 172). This was the climate under which the Klan first surfaced. Throughout history it has had various surges in popularity followed by intense criticisms. This paper will seek to compare and contrast the portrayal of Klan members in the films Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith and O Brother Where Art Thou by the Coen brothers, while also comparing the perceptions of the Klan in two time periods in which they were produced, 1915 and 2000.
The Ku Klux Klan began as a secret society for Southern soldiers in Pulaski, Tennessee in early 1866 that were tired of having nothing to fight. The name was a play on Greek letters based on the rising popularity of Southern colleges (Hurst, 278). Initially they did not intend to have the sheets that we know a synonymous with the Klan today. To create a buzz in the community they donned them to keep their secrecy, and also to strike fear into people. The reaction they received from people, especially from Blacks caused the sheets to become part of their identity (Hurst, 278). By late 1866, the Klan had spread outside Pulaski to surrounding counties and their influence was consistently growing.
The early Klan shifted their focus from just having meetings and scaring people in rides at night to having a real and directed purpose. They were angry over the New South’s policies and two groups in particular, neither of them was black. The first were Northern “carpetbaggers,” who the Klan saw as destroying the Southern way of life. The second group was Southern Republicans who were seen as traitors to the Old South and its ways. Originally the Klan paid little attention to Blacks, only realizing after going out on late night rides in their sheets, the panic they could cause people to experience. Then, when Blacks started gaining more political power, in this time period, the Klan’s focus shifted more to them. The preferred methods for killing people and causing more fear in people both Black and White was lynching. Lynching had already been an established practice going back to the Revolutionary War (D’Souza, 173). The Klan adopted lynching as a form of vigilante justice. Until the last decade of the nineteenth century, lynching had shown no racial preferences, in fact the majority of those lynched up until that time were White (D’Souza, 173). However, the Klan found the Black population to be an ever increasingly easy target and more susceptible to their attacks. In 1873, just seven years after the Klan’s inception the first wave of the Klan was all over. They were accused of abuses of the law and Congress began a series of investigations that brought them down (D’Souza, 173). Similar organizations came about to try and keep the movement going but it was dead for another thirty years.
In the early twentieth century, two novels on the Reconstruction era of the South were written that served as the inspiration for the revival of the Klan in 1915. The Reverend Thomas Dixon wrote both these anti-black novels. The first novel, written in 1902, was called The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burden. The second novel, written in 1905, was called The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan and it was an instant success. The majority of copies were sold in the South, but it was met with nationwide acclaim. This book sold more than one hundred thousand copies in only a few months (D’Souza, 173). Both of these books awakened a nostalgia and desire for the old ways that the Klan was associated with. Dixon adapted The Clansman and it was performed as a play. A writer in Griffith’s production company suggested that he consider making Dixon’s novel into a feature film (Williams, 61). Griffith had read the novel and agreed that it would make a good film. He researched for the film by dissecting the book and studying the history of the period of Reconstruction. He portrayed the novel on film as accurately as he possibly could. The film that Griffith produced was the first one of its kind in its enormous scale and pioneering techniques of filmmaking. Griffith portrayed the Blacks in his movie as crazed and uncivilized. Women are portrayed as the victims of these crazed Black men. The climax of the movie comes in the restoration of justice and civility by the Klan as they ride into town valiantly.
Birth of a Nation opened in the spring of 1915 to critical acclaim as a landmark achievement in production and material. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court praised the film; he had been a member of the original Klan (D’Souza, 174). President Woodrow Wilson, who is now known to be a racist, received a private screening of the film. He believed in an ideology called “Americanism,” that there should be nothing in America but pure Americans. He was also anti-hyphen in that if someone was Irish-American they could not be pure and would only serve as a detriment to us against our enemies. This ideology was also held for Blacks, as they were African-American. He also praised the film saying that, “Its like writing history with lightning and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true”(Loewen, 28). The film was also met with many criticisms based on its material, especially in the North.
Yet, the film was well received for the most part, and it is evident that it reflected the attitudes of many people during this period. The release of the film inspired another reverend, Reverend William Simmons to lead a revival of the Klan. On Thanksgiving night in 1915 on the top of Stone Mountain in Georgia, he had the first meeting of the new Klan. He took out advertisements in newspapers to promote his revival. For a fee of ten dollars, one could become a member. Chapters in areas all over the country began to spring up, though the Klan had originally been a more rural group.
The new Klan was made up of planters and industrialists, and was established to fight the changes that were occurring in American culture. The Klan’s claim was that they were trying to save America from sinking any further into immorality. Many new opportunities were opening up for Blacks in the workforce and in society. They were able to get many jobs they had previously been unable to get and had gained more housing opportunities. America was trying to desperately stay out of World War I in its hold on an isolationist ideology. The technology was also changing along with the culture. Henry Ford and his automobiles were produced at an alarming rate due to the assembly line. The car became a beacon for an attack on indecency. Teenagers became mobile and could now travel somewhere to have a date, rather than staying at home. This also led to teenagers having a greater chance for promiscuity. Women were also becoming more independent. This was the era of the flappers and women’s suffrage movements. These women’s liberation movements frightened many that wanted to keep women in the home as wives and mothers. The communist revolution in Russia also instilled a sense of fear and paranoia into the American people. The Klan promised to fight all these things and reinstall America’s traditional values. The targets for the Klan besides Black Americans were Catholics, Jews, and immigrants. Whites who were poor or otherwise unable to compete could still have a sense of power over Blacks. Many used the anthem that at least they’ll, “Never be Black” (D’Souza, 175). Historian Richard Wright believes that the new Klan served as a, “Religion of the materially disinterested and culturally disinherited” (D’Souza, 175).
The Klan was influential at all levels in culture and society. There was a chapter at Harvard University. They also had clout in the political arena. They grew to a membership of somewhere between two and five million by 1925. They had members in all levels of state and federal offices such as: governors, mayors, sheriffs, and judges. The Klan ran the state of Indiana in this time period, and they also held major political influence in sixteen other states. Their influence went all the way to the White House of two presidencies. The first was Woodrow Wilson who was already established as a racist earlier in this paper. The second was Warren G. Harding, who was inducted as a member in the Green Room of the White House!
The decline of the second wave of the Klan occurred in two ways; one was the efforts of the NAACP and the other was their own undoing. In 1905, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) wanted to revive the abolitionist movement (D’Souza, 189). The group was also a haven for activist Blacks like W.E.B. DuBois. In 1905 they met at Niagara to create their platform of ideas. They wanted to end lynching, have equal education, and abolish racial discrimination and segregation. (D’Souza, 190). As the decade of the 1920’s wound down the Klan started losing its influence and saw a sharp decline of membership, from the millions they once had to only a few thousand. Klan leaders started to argue amongst each other over authority for who should be in control of the advancement of the revival. Their downfall also came in the selection of which groups they directed their hate towards. They began with Blacks and Catholics, but then they spread their focus to include drunks, adulterers, unions, Jews, and communists (D’Souza, 190). The spread of their focus came with their desire to protect the decency of America, especially in attacking drunks and adulterers. However, many Americans increasingly became scared that they would be the next targets. Politicians and newspapers began speaking out and reporting of the Klan’s abuses and violence. It soon became a liability for a candidate to associate with the Klan in any way. By the 1930’s the number of lynching fell to ten (D’Souza, 191).
The source for the Coen brothers’ film O Brother Where Art Thou, which is set in the 1930’s, is Homer’s The Odyssey, although loosely. Homer’s tale is the story of Odysseus and his adventures after the Trojan War. He meets various characters along the way like the Cyclops and the sirens, and travels to uncharted worlds like Hades (Greek underworld). The Coens’ claim, that they have never read Homer’s tale, though they needed to read it to get some idea of the story to write the screenplay. The basic story remains however, of a man separated from his home on a journey to get back to that home and his wife. They do not include all of the elements of Homer’s story, so their film falls under the category of dramatic interpretation. They also take Odysseus out of his element from ancient Greece and place him into Depression era Mississippi. This was a difficult time for many Americans, especially poor farmers in the rural South. Thus we see the theme of disenfranchised Whites turning to Klan membership for guidance. Although this film is set in the Depression era South the attitudes towards the Klan are more reflective of the time in which it was produced.
The Klan still exists today even if it is at a lower capacity. Dinesh D’Souza had written his book in 1995, but even these ten years later the Klan is viewed in much of the same way. Occasionally a new book will still pop up or even an article in a magazine or newspaper. Some authors believe that the movement is still small, but that it is growing again, especially in the South. Alphonso Pinkney, an author that D’Souza uses as one of his sources believes in his book, The Myth of Black Progress, “No one knows exactly what the Klan membership is but it is clear that it is growing in the South and elsewhere” (D’Souza, 392). Two other authors, Joe Feagin and Hernan Vera state in their book, White Racism, “The white supremacy movement is growing” (D’Souza, 392). D’Souza believes that they are not on the rise; he says they are out of money, still have a low membership, and are watched closely by police and civil rights groups. In 1987, Morris Dees, led a suit against the Klan in which his clients were rewarded seven million dollars. The Klan had to liquidate many of their assets, including their national headquarters. In 1991, he estimated that their membership was down to four thousand. He believed that it could have been possible for them to have disappeared completely by the beginning of this new century, though that has not yet happened. Stuart Lowengrub, the leader of the Anti-Defamation League in Atlanta at the time this book was written said, “The Klan today has nothing left, no influence at all, political or economic. What’s left of the Klan is no more than a nuisance” (D’Souza, 393).
The Klan still makes appearances in the media. They occasionally have made appearances on talk shows like Geraldo and Jerry Springer. These are showcases in which those on the show attempt to explain themselves, but they more often only show our modern day perceptions of them to a bigger audience. We tend in our modern day culture to think of Klansmen as being uneducated, ignorant, or Rednecks stuck in the past. In the past, on Howard Stern’s radio show he would frequently encourage people to call Klan groups taunting them and leaving messages in which they laugh at their ignorance. In his 2001 spoken word performance, Henry Rollins, actor and former front man of the 1980’s punk band Black Flag gave his theory on how to dismantle the Klan from American society. He spoke of going after them on his first day in the office of the presidency, by enlisting three thousand men from the three main facets of society they hate the most(Gays, Blacks, and Jews). He would have well known fashion designers create the most outlandish Klan outfits they could think of. They would then infiltrate their parades and rallies forcing members to leave the Klan while discouraging others from joining (Rollins, track 2). This just illustrates that in many peoples’ minds today, the Klan is more of a joke than an actual political or social threat.
The Klan is partially kept alive by the media and their sensationalizing of the Klan. For example, the Klan had decided to stop the number of Mexicans from crossing the border of Texas by patrolling it. Only eight Klan members showed up to patrol the whole border! When the news media showed up to cover the event they greatly outnumbered the Klan members. Another example was a Klan rally where they were going to have a cross burning, typical Klan activity, however, the Klan delayed the burning until the media showed up to cover it. Though they do not have the power they once did the NAACP reported that their, “views are shared quietly by others” (D’Souza, 396). This portrays the climate of the times in which we live and it likely had an effect on how the Coens’ presented the Klan in their film.
The story of the film, Birth of a Nation, is centered on the Stoneman and Cameron families. It follows from the beginnings of slavery through Reconstruction and how it affected these families. The film takes place in Piedmont, South Carolina, which in reality served as a major place of activity for the Klan. In the film, the Blacks take over the town in its politics (locally and in the South Carolina House) and wreak havoc on the Whites of the town. The characters are used to symbolically portray specific themes and stir up feelings related to this period in American history. The women in the film represent the purity of White womanhood being threatened, but also the purity of the whole South that was lost in the war. The White men of the film are the heroes that exude the virtues of the old South. They are also shown to be the pro-Klan characters that are trying to establish order again. The Black men of the film are depicted as the villains in the Reconstruction South who are out to corrupt and control the White characters. These Black characters are the anti-Klan characters of the film.
The women of the film are Elsie Stoneman and Flora Cameron. Elsie is the daughter of Austin Stoneman, an abolition supporter in Washington. She is also the love interest of Col. Ben Cameron. Flora Cameron is the littlest sister of Col. Ben Cameron. Both of these women illustrate the purity of womanhood being threatened in similar ways. In the scenes that involve Elsie and Ben, his attempts at getting a kiss from her are thwarted because of her chastity, but he may kiss a bird that she had kissed. In a later scene Silas Lynch, who had been elected the lieutenant governor, was having a party and he trapped Elsie in his office. His intention was to force Elsie to marry him. He said, “See! My people fill the streets. With them I will build a Black Empire and you as my queen shall sit by my side” (Lang, 136). Flora has a similar experience with Gus, who is described in the screenplay from the book by Lang, as a renegade Negro. Gus walks by the Cameron house and seeing Flora there he asks if she would accept his proposal of marriage, he also had a newly acquired social status. She refused and ran away into the woods as Gus chases her. Flora comes to a cliff and begs Gus to stop or she will jump. Gus does not and she jumps to her death at the bottom. Rather than be a victim of assault, or be married to a black man against her will, she decides it would be better to be dead than dishonored. Ben says after finding her, “for her who has learned the stern lesson of honor we should not grieve that she found sweeter the opal gates of death” (Lang, 123). Both of these women represent the South and show the liberties that the carpetbaggers and the freed Blacks now thought they could take.
The White men of the film are portrayed in two ways, the hero and also the victim. Col. Ben Cameron is the leader of the Klan, a Southern war hero and also hero of the story. He acts as the protector and savior of all those in the town from the Blacks that have taken over. In the scene that shows his inspiration for the Klan, he is sitting on a riverbank contemplating what he calls the, “degradation and ruin of his people” (Lang, 114). He sees some white children scare some Black children from under a sheet. From that comes what would come to be the, “…the organization that saved the South from the anarchy of Black rule” (Lang, 114). The creation of the Klan is, in Ben’s mind, a reaction to the Blacks abuses of power. Their violence is only used to gain justice. The other major white male character is Austin Stoneman, the father of Elsie and the abolition supporter from Washington. In Washington he supports the movements to garner Blacks equal treatment with whites. He instills Silas Lynch as the lieutenant governor proclaiming, “I shall make this man, Silas Lynch, as a symbol of his race, the peer of any white man living” (Lang, 97). He sends Lynch south to set up the policies he wants carried out for the Blacks. He became ill and at his doctor’s suggestion moved to the warmer climate of Piedmont. There Stoneman could supervise the institution of his policies firsthand. Later in the film he is betrayed by Lynch. While his daughter is being threatened, Lynch turns on him and becomes violent pushing him down. This caused Stoneman to switch sides and sympathize with Cameron and the Klan.
The Black characters in the film are presented as crazed and insecure in how to handle their new freedoms. The first is Silas Lynch, who serves as the lieutenant governor of South Carolina and lives in Piedmont. He begins in Washington as a protégé of Stoneman and while he is there he is a humble character, who even bows to Stoneman. Once he arrives in Piedmont he comes into instant conflict with Ben Cameron. Under his authority the Blacks begin pushing the whites of the town around. In a local election his soldiers stop whites from voting. By the end of the film voting is turned back around, the Klan bans the Blacks from voting through intimidation. As the film goes on he becomes increasingly more corrupt and abuses his power. He has drunken parties where he chases women around. The legislature passes laws that state whites must salute the Black soldiers as they pass, and a bill that would allow for interracial marriages. Outnumbered the Whites of the town are referred to as the helpless minority (Lang, 111). Silas uses the new laws to his advantage when he tries to set up a ceremony and marry Elsie against her will. He lastly orders the killing of all the Klansmen after they leave Gus’ body on his porch. Gus has a smaller role but he is portrayed as a crazy Black man with a creepy personality, who is sneaking around, and hiding behind trees. His character is indicative of the rest of the Blacks in the town. He is seen as intimidating and a threat to the young girl which is synonymous with the Southern way of life.
In O Brother Where Art Thou, the characters are portrayed in a stark contrast. White characters are the ones that are seen as corrupt and evil. Big Dan Teague is representative in two ways; he represents the Cyclops monster of Homer’s Odyssey, by his eye patch, and he is also later in the film revealed to be a Klan member. At the time we are introduced to him he acts like a decent man, a Bible salesman. Any man who sells the Bible, we assume, must be a good and moral person. But then he takes Everett and Delmar to lunch for conversation, where he shows his true colors by attacking them, stealing their money, and killing the toad that was thought to be their companion Pete. Considering the time period of the movie, 1937, when we discover Dan to be a Klan member, we can assume that he was influenced by the revival of the Klan that started after the release of Griffith’s movie. Yet he is portrayed as a corrupt business man and very unlike any of the characters in Griffith’s film. Homer Stokes, the man running for governor of the state of Mississippi is the other character that is discovered to be in the Klan. In his political rally early in the film, he talks of cleaning up the state and reforms that will improve the state. He also talks about upholding traditional values and moral fiber in his speech, which he believes the current governor, has strayed away from. His character was not intent on really being the “reform” candidate, he was just saying what he felt the people wanted to hear.
The main characters of the film are somewhat reluctant heroes in that they seem to always be stumbling into the situation that needs solving. In the Klan ceremony scene, they rolled down a hill while fighting amongst each other ending up at the ceremony. They are also anti-heroes in that they are escaped convicts, and they are not really out to save the day but they are not interested in going on a crime spree either. Pete and Delmar become reformed and give up their shady pasts after getting baptized in the river. In meeting “Babyface” Nelson or George Nelson as he prefers, they tag along and try to talk him out of robbing the bank. Overall they are portrayed as three well meaning guys looking for a fresh start. They also have a strong sense of camaraderie and are always looking out for each other.
The only Black character of the film is the young musician that has sold his soul to the devil, Tommy Johnson. Tommy is polite, well dressed, and clean in his suit and hat. Tommy, minus his lost soul is the most moral character in the film. He is just a young man trying to make a living playing his guitar. When the Klan captures him he pleads with them that he is innocent and has not done anything to anyone.
The representations of the Klan in the two films are a sharp contrast. In Birth of a Nation, in the trial scene of Gus the Klan produces evidence that he did it because Ben Cameron found Gus’ hat at the cliff. They are judging him for a real crime to claim justice for the death of Flora, not just because he is black. The scene is shot with a red filter over the lens and a burning cross in the background. The red filter had been used more than once earlier in the film to show the chaos(town burning) that was caused by the invading carpetbaggers from the North and the free Blacks. Now the red filter shows the South getting its revenge from the wrongs done to them earlier. The Klan rally in O Brother Where Art Thou shows a Klan rally in the same regard, with intent to burn a cross and kill a black man. However, their rally is more for ritual, they are shown chanting and dancing in patterns. They are also lynching their victim for no real reason, a senseless act. The reason that they give for hanging Tommy, is that they are just doing what they do. The three heroes save Tommy by dressing as Klansmen, which also represents Odysseus escaping the Cyclops by tying his party to sheep. Dan pulls their hoods off and because of their dirty faces they are mistaken to be Black themselves. The Klansmen of this film are portrayed as bumbling and unintelligent, being thwarted by four men.
The end of Birth of a Nation shows a triumphant Klan parading into town with the women and the cabin people they saved. They have saved the Southern way of life from being overrun by the abusive Blacks and, “…their determination to put the white South under the heel of the black South” (Lang, 94). The Klan succeeded in their goal of putting the Blacks back in their place. They had also reunited the North and South under a common cause. The end of O Brother Where Art Thou, does not show the Klan in a triumphant way. Homer Stokes goes to his political rally to find the four men that broke up his Klan rally performing on stage and integrated. He stops the show to inform the people of what these men had done. The people do not seem to care that there is an integrated band on stage but they do care that Stokes belongs to the Klan. He is booed out of the building and loses all credibility with the people that had supported him in his campaign.
The representations of the Klan in Birth of a Nation were not only representative of the time period of the Reconstruction South but also the revival of the Klan in 1915 after the release of the film. The film shows Ben Cameron finding inspiration to begin the Klan. Along that riverbank he was searching to find a way to save what he believed was the Southern way of life from extinction. The film shows the Klan as a reactionary force to the policies that the North was instituting on the South. These new policies were being enforced by Southern Republicans who were accused of being traitors to the Southern way of life. The Blacks were also threatening Southern culture by having their new freedoms, especially the franchising of Blacks, or the right to vote. This film is not only representative of the Reconstruction South the film covers but it is also representative of prevailing attitudes at the time in which Griffith made his film, 1915. Griffith claims in the second part of the film that, “ This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and Reconstruction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today” (Lang, 94). Aside from this disclaimer, this is not how the film was received among the public. Yet at the time Griffith made his film, America was having a culture crisis. Many thought that America was sinking into immorality and Blacks were having another surge of new opportunities in the workforce and society. The resurgence of the Klan at this time, proves that people were desperate to reinstill the traditional values Americans felt they were losing.
The representations of the Klan in O Brother Where Art Thou, show two different times. On one end of the spectrum the Coens’ show an America desperate for change. The film takes place in Depression era South in 1937. At this time the Klan still existed but the revival of the early twentieth century had ended. However, this was also the time of “Jim Crow” and segregation in America that divided the country. Blacks were allowed the same rights and facilities supposedly “separate but equal,” but they were not equal at all. Though the Coens’ depict an America affected by the Depression, as illustrated in the Hogwallop family farm they, do not necessarily reflect the attitudes we would think of in this time. At the rally, our three heroes save Tommy from being lynched, because he was their friend, but more importantly he was innocent. At the recording of the song in the beginning the man says he does not allow any “negro songs,” but at the political rally the audience has no concern about having a Black man perform on stage with a group of White men. The views shown by the Coens’, although in the context of the time period of the film, seem actually more representative of the times we live in now, of post-segregation America.
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14. Feldman, Glenn. Politics, Society, and the Klan in Alabama, 1915-1949. University of Alabama Press. Tuscaloosa. 1999.
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