One Nation Divisible

         The Clansman and Birth of a Nation both begin as an examination of a country divided by civil war in a time of white dominance and slavery. They acquaint readers and viewers with the spark of a new war that would begin a new turn in history, the war between the black and white races. The character of Gus is present in both the novel and the film, representing the then stereotypical white view of the black male as a stalker, rapist, murderer, and animal.

         In Thomas Dixon Jr.'s 1905 novel, The Clansman, there is evidence to suggest that Ben Cameron is aware of Gus's presence near Marion's residence: "'He say, wid his eyes batten' des like lightnen, Ef I ketch you hangin' 'roun' dis place agin, Gus, I'll jump on you en stomp de life outen ye.'" Ben witnesses Gus near Marion's house, fears for her safety, and threatens Gus not to return. Gus forcefully enters the house with three other black men, and Dixon portrays him as an evil animal: "Gus stepped closer, with an ugly leer, his flat nose dilated, his sinister bead-eyes wide apart gleaming ape-like, as he laughed: 'We ain't atter money!" Dixon draws special attention to the shape of the nose and position of the eyes, implying that Gus is a member of the primate family instead of being a man. Dixon then refers to him as a tiger: "A single tiger-spring, and the black claws of the beast sank into the soft white throat and she was still." Gus is presented as being a ferocious, callous beast, a tiger, which is one of the most feared in the world, going in for the kill. He rapes Marion, and she jumps off Lover's Leap with her mother to prevent anyone from knowing a black man had raped her. Thus, everyone would continue to think of her as "sweet and clean" (205, 304, 305).

         In the chapter "The Hunt for the Animal," their disappearance becomes public, and Ben looks for evidence to support his theory that Gus is the culprit. He finds footprints outside the window: "The white man was never born who could make that track. The enormous heel projected backward, and in the hollow of the instep where the dirt would scarcely be touched by an Aryan was the deep wide mark of the African's flat foot." Ben is certain that the footprint is that of a black man because of the size and shape. The fact that Dixon says "track" implies again that Gus is an animal with feet unlike any man's. He goes on to say that the footprint could have been produced by "an ordinary chicken-thief" (310). These, too, are words implying animalism. When we think of stolen chickens, we picture predators such as foxes sneaking into hen houses, not black men.

         The remaining evidence for Gus's crime is gathered by the doctor when he examines the eyes of mother and daughter for the last image seen by the eye before death. Ben claims he sees nothing upon his own examination, and the doctor insists that Ben's eyes are not trained like his are. Upon closer inspection of the mother's eyes, the doctor finally concludes that it is Gus. "'The bestial figure of a Negro--his huge black hand plainly defined--the upper part of the face is dim, as if obscured by a gray mist of dawn--but the massive jaws and lips are clear--merciful God!--yes!--it's Gus!'" Of course, the mother had not seen Gus for many hours prior to her death, but the doctor wants to believe that it is Gus, and so he concludes it is. Again, attention is drawn to the facial structure, the "massive jaws" which imply a huge beast and predator. Ben still insists there is nothing to be seen with the microscope, that the doctor is fabricating the story, but the doctor states, "'That's possible, of course, yet I don't believe it'" (314). The doctor knows he has no proof except his personal belief that Gus is guilty. Again, Gus is portrayed as an animal, inferior to humans and acting upon instinct, lacking the brain capacity to produce normal thought. This portrayal is possibly used to fit Dixon's beliefs and views, the time in which he was writing, and to fit the white views of the time in which the novel is set.

         In the Griffith film, Birth of a Nation, Gus is presented by Walter Long as very obviously stalking Ben's sister, not Marion. Perhaps the purpose is to invoke even more anger in the character of Ben than is portrayed in the novel, or to invoke the anger of viewers because it is one of Ben's family members, an innocent child known as "Little Sister" (Miriam Cooper). Gus is shown hunching over in an animalistic fashion, watching Marion and moving alongside the fence in front of the Cameron house. Gus pursues Ben's sister through the forest after he proposes marriage. Griffith flattens the character of Gus with the stereotypes of the time, portraying him as being a deadly predator chasing after his prey. Gus does not get tired, does not give up, and he maintains a wide-eyed look of lust and brutality. When they reach the cliff, Gus tries to convince Ben's sister not to jump, but she does. The camera is set far back to allow viewers to see her complete fall, her body hitting rocks on the way down. Griffith sends a message that even painful, gruesome deaths are better to be suffered than a white girl marrying a black man. Though Ben (Henry B. Walthall) only sees in the woods and there is no indication that he has previously noticed him lurking outside of the Cameron home, he surprisingly has little difficulty finding Gus in town. It is another message from Griffith that the animalistic black man is forever inferior to the white man and cannot hide from the punishment of the Ku Klux Klan.

         Though the film differs from the novel, it contains similar messages. The character of Gus represents the bestial black man who must be eliminated to protect the white woman. Both film and novel address the war between North and South and focus on a nation divided by war between black and white.

Work Cited

Dixon, Jr., Thomas. The Clansman An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. New York: Doubleday, Page, and Company, 1905.

Crystal Parrish

Table of Contents