Night Riders and Matinee Movies: The Relationship Between the KKK and American Film

This book could not be timelier, given the nativist and racist rhetoric inflaming discourse among America's Republican Party presidential hopefuls.

The connection between D. W. Griffith’s landmark 1915 film The Birth of a Nation and the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in the 20th century is an ugly footnote in Hollywood history. Tom Rice’s new book on the KKK and cinema plucks this topic from the margins and provides a needed corrective both to cinematic history and the cultural history of the US between the two world wars.

Rice’s carefully researched story of how the Klan used strategic exhibitions of The Birth of a Nation and other films, attempted to produce and distribute its own titles, and exploited the emerging machinery of public relations to ride to prominence in the ’20s is decidedly modern and relevant, not just because 2015 marks the centenary of The Birth of a Nation. Indeed, the book could not be timelier, given the nativist and racist rhetoric inflaming discourse among Republican Party presidential hopefuls as the 2016 American presidential campaign gathers steam.

Rice, a lecturer in Film Studies at University of St. Andrews, begins by debunking the argument that The Birth of a Nation, in which the Ku Klux Klan appears as a liberating force who rid a South Carolina town of the Black Union soldiers who occupied it, led to the rebirth of the Klan in 1915. First, William Simmons, “the founder and self-appointed Imperial Wizard of the Knights of the Klu Klux Klan”, had already revived the Klan in Georgia, and used initial screenings of the film there to promote his organization.

Second, despite the usefulness of The Birth of a Nation as a recruiting tool, it wasn’t until the early ’20s that the KKK became a national organization, with thriving chapters throughout the US (Indiana, a Klan stronghold, figures prominently in White Robes, Silver Screens and so it’s appropriate that Indiana University Press published the book.)

In 1920, the Klan hired publicists and committed to a modern marketing campaign based on a belief in the power of film to educate and incite. Rice locates this shift as part of a trend, “a point at which both the state and industry are increasingly invested in using film to inculcate, define, and create modern citizens” (38). In post–World War I America, that meant taking a stand on how or whether the emerging superpower would assimilate the millions of immigrants who arrived in the US in the early 20th century.

The KKK’s approach was multifaceted. They decried the current state of the film industry, claiming that Jews, Catholics, and foreign influences like Charles Chaplin and actress Pola Negri were responsible for what they considered the immoral and anti-Protestant bent of many films.

At the same time, they championed what they considered “100 percent American” films like The Birth of a Nation and The Face at Your Window (1920). The latter title features a plot similar to The Birth of a Nation — with the America Legion in the role of the heroic group — although the KKK doesn’t figure in the film at all. Local Klan groups used public exhibitions of these films as promotional opportunities, and arranged private screenings for recruiting and education purposes.

Rice observes that this practice was also adopted by religious and civic groups who “sought to promote ‘Americanism,’ visualizing film as an educational tool, through which they could recruit members and promote, define, and formalize their role within local communities”. Film was just one part of Klan programming; for example, the organization mimicked the popular Chautauqua Adult Education format by offering its own series of “Klantauquas”.

The Klan also attempted to produce its own films. The organization had hopes to distribute two titles, The Toll of Justice and The Traitor Within, for public and private exhibition. Scandal, lack of experience in filmmaking, and the waning of Klan influence, however, ensured that the films had little influence.

In his assessment of representations of the Klan in mainstream ’20s cinema, Rice is particularly effective at elucidating how film censorship aided the KKK in its attempts to present itself as a civic-minded American organization divorced from the violence perpetrated and countenanced by the group.

In addition to “restrictions” on including racial and religious targets and violence on screen, limitations of representation stemmed from the desire of studios not to alienate potential audiences. Progressive filmmakers feared that depicting the Klan in unflattering terms would play into the group’s anti-Hollywood crusade and cause more people to support it, and they were concerned about the characteristics of the genres in which the Klan typically appeared: short comedies, many of them produced for children, and westerns. The resulting impression on moviegoers was that “The on-screen Klan was motivated not by race but by a moral code…”

As for how such watered-down depictions could move audiences, Rice points to the generic conventions that enabled the Klan message to resonate: “Pulp fiction and the western B-movie seemingly offered a popular outlet for the nativist anxieties that motivated the Klan, damning the failings of contemporary society and, in their own ways, propagating a largely conservative form of Americanism.”

Rice briefly explores the anti-Klan work of African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, who “sought to challenge the dominant formal conventions of American cinema in order to question its ruling ideologies.” Due to the same censorship brought to bear on other cinematic depictions of the Klan, Micheaux’s ideas did not gain traction outside of the black community.

By the ’30s, the modern Klan was in decline, and cinematic depictions grew bolder. “Social problem” films like Black Legion (1937), Nation Aflame (1937), and Legion of Terror (1936) directly addressed violence by the Klan and other vigilante groups, and the film industry began to consider its responsibility to influence public opinion in such matters.

In the Epilogue, Rice addresses the “uncomfortable echoes in contemporary American” of the themes he explores in his book: the influential role played by right-wing media in national discussions of “identity” and “citizenship”, and the exploitation of new media by extremist groups. White Robes, Silver Screens provides an essential historical perspective on these phenomena, with lessons we would all do well to heed.

Note: The review copy of this book was an uncorrected advance reading copy. Details of the versions for sale are available here from the publisher.

RATING 8 / 10