Just chatting: Thomas Dixon and John Hope Franklin

“After the enormous success of [“The Birth of a Nation”], Thomas Dixon, who’d already made several fortunes on his writing and speaking, turned movie producer and kept making money. But he lost everything in the economic crash of 1929, and in the 1930s spent his waning years working as a clerk of court in Raleigh. [John Hope] Franklin, then doing research for his first book, would see him in front of the courthouse and engage him in pleasant conversations that he recalled to me fondly — an image of how Southern cordiality can make intimates of even the starkest intellectual opponents….”

— From “Why No One Is Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Feature Film” by  Godfrey Cheshire at Vulture (Feb. 6)

Cheshire, a Raleigh-born film critic, interviewed Franklin for his 2007 documentary “Moving Midway.”


Debunking Wilson’s rave for ‘The Birth of a Nation’

“On February 18 [1915] Wilson and his daughters and his Cabinet gathered in the East Room for the first running of a motion picture in the White House  [“The Clansman,” later retitled “The Birth of a Nation.”]

” ‘It was like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true,’ Wilson purportedly said when the lights came up. In fact, Wilson almost certainly never said it. The encomium does not even appear in the unpublished memoirs of the self-serving Thomas Dixon. The only firsthand record of Wilson’s feelings about the film appear in a letter three years later, in which he wrote , ‘I have always felt that this was a very unfortunate production and I wish most sincerely that its production might be avoided, particularity in communities where there are so many colored people.’ … Another member of the audience that night reported that the President seemed lost in thought during the film and exited the East Room upon its completion without saying a word to anybody….

“The comment did not appear in print for more than two decades. In any case, word of a White House screening circulated, and that was tantamount to a Presidential endorsement.”

— From “Wilson” by A. Scott Berg (2013)


Thomas Dixon, D.W. Griffith and Quentin Tarantino

Henry Louis Gates: [Django Unchained] is an opposite extreme of The Birth of a Nation. Did that play a conscious role in your mind? Reversing the depiction of slavery that The Birth of a Nation registered?

Quentin Tarantino: Yeah, you have to understand, I’m obsessed with The Birth of a Nation and its making.

HLG: Why?

QT: I think it gave rebirth to the Klan and all the blood that was spilled throughout — until the early ’60s, practically. I think that both Rev. Thomas Dixon Jr. and D.W. Griffith, if they were held by Nuremberg Laws, they would be guilty of war crimes for making that movie because of what they created there.

I’ve read about its making. I’ve read the book that just got published on Rev. Dixon a little bit ago, American Racist, which was a very disturbing book — more disturbing because I hated him forever, and the book made me actually understand him a little bit, when it is much easier to think of him as a monster. That’s not pleasant — things aren’t as easy, unfortunately, when you dive into things with a microscope.

But I’ve written a big piece that I’ve never finished that is about the thought process that would go into making The Birth of a Nation, and you know, it’s one thing for the grandson of a bloody Confederate officer to bemoan how times have changed — some old racist Southern old-timer bemoaning how life has changed, complaining that there was a day when you never saw a n—– on Main Street, and now you do. Well, if he’s just going to sit on his porch and sit in his rocking chair and pop off lies, who cares? That’s not making The Birth of a Nation every day for a year, and financing it yourself. And if you ever tried to read The Clansman [the book and play upon which The Birth of a Nation is based], it really can only stand next to Mein Kampf when it comes to just its ugly imagery.

HLG: Oh, it’s pure evil, man.

QT: It is evil! And I don’t use that word lightly. It was one of the most popular touring plays of its day.

HLG: And a foundational moment in the history of cinema.

QT: Oddly enough, where I got the idea for the Klan guys [in Django Unchained] — they’re not Klan yet, the Regulators arguing about the bags [on their heads] — as you may well know, director John Ford was one of the Klansmen in The Birth of a Nation, so I even speculate in the piece: Well, John Ford put on a Klan uniform for D.W. Griffith. What was that about? What did that take? He can’t say he didn’t know the material. Everybody knew The Clansman at that time as a piece of material.

HLG: Right. It was a best-seller.

QT: And touring companies were doing plays of it all the time. And yet he put on the Klan uniform. He got on the horse. He rode hard to black subjugation. As I’m writing this — and he rode hard, and I’m sure the Klan hood was moving all over his head as he was riding and he was riding blind — I’m thinking, wow. That probably was the case. How come no one’s ever thought of that before? Five years later, I’m writing the scene and all of a sudden it comes out.

HLG: So 98 years later, you’ve deconstructed The Birth of a Nation through Django….

— From “Tarantino ‘Unchained,’ Part 1: ‘Django’ Trilogy?” (Dec. 23, 2012, The Root)