Getting One Over on the Director

        Originally titled The Clansman, Birth of a Nation was the longest and most expensive motion picture made in the United States at that time. The 1915 film grossed nearly $48 million at the box office and was the first film to have a special screening at the White House by President Woodrow Wilson; however, despite its success, the film created controversy, incited riots, and was forced to be banned in some places (Cook 65). In his early career, D.W. Griffith was referred to as "the Shakespeare of the screen;" however, he harbored racist values (Cook 65, 51). One of his biggest accomplishments, Birth of a Nation, reflected his personal beliefs. Despite controversy and a racist director, one actor, Walter Long, demonstrates how racial stereotypes develop from fear and ignorance.

        Walter Long plays the role of Gus, a black soldier who eventually gets lynched despite his innocence. Although Long plays a black character in the film, he is a white actor. In an infamous "chase" scene Gus pursues a young white girl named Flora (Mae Marsh). In this scene, Flora skips off into the woods to fetch water; and, like many adolescents, she becomes distracted and dawdles in her childish fantasy world. A black soldier, Gus, spies Flora and wishes to ask for her hand in marriage since interracial marriage was now deemed legal. Gus approaches her with no hint of viciousness and asks for her hand in marriage. Flora reacts from her enculturated fear of blacks and slaps Gus after he proposes to her. After slapping Gus, Flora flees through the woods because she is afraid of him due to her preconceived ideas about black men's behavior toward white women. Immediately, Flora has assumed that he wants to sexually assault her. Concerned for her safety, Gus pursues Flora trying to make her realize he meant her no harm. Eventually, Flora finds herself teetering on the edge of a cliff. She warns Gus not to come closer, or she would jump to her death. Gus attempts to reassure Flora that he does not wish to harm her in anyway. Out of fear, Flora jumps to her death. Her brother, Ben (Henry B. Walthall), assumes that Gus has caused her death, and he forms a posse to lynch Gus.

        With his spectacular performance, Walter Long transformed this scene into something director D.W. Griffith never anticipated. Long clearly demonstrates that Gus meant the little girl no harm. His eyes, face, and body gestures show sincere concern that Flora was upset, and later, for her safety. This scene clearly shows how racist enculturation ensures the next generation's ignorance that gets expressed as hate and fear.

Jackie Hawes

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