How Jack Johnson made D. W. Griffith rewrite his film Birth of a Nation.

In the novel The Clansman, Tomas F. Dixon (1905) paints the portrait of a brutish slave named Gus who brutally beats and rapes a 15 year old white girl named Marion Lenior. The girl so distraught by the attack retreats to a nearby cliff and commits suicide. In The Clansman the slave Gus is an amalgamation of all of the White man’s fears: an animal like creature who knows no restraint, who is a constant threat to the White man's wives and daughters.

Years later that racist definition, the violent black man, gave way to a new fear, the fear of the 'uppity' Negro who had the audacity to think himself the equal of a white man. So ‘uppity’ were these new Black men that many thought themselves worthy to marry white women. By 1915 the fear of miscegenation had taken a strong hold on White society.

D. W. Griffith in his film interpretation of The ClansmanBirth of a Nation (1915) rewrote the story of that violent rape into a story of possible miscegenation and Jack Johnson became his metaphoric villain.

Here is why:

In January of 1911, Jack Johnson married a white woman named Etta Duryea and then in the following year broke off that relationship. Etta Duryea, who was prone to depression then decided to commit suicide. As if that wasn't bad enough, Jack Johnson, now a free widower, just two months later, marries a second white woman, Lucille Cameron. (note italics) and needless to say all through the next year the story Etta Duryea' suicide and the exploits of current wife Lucille Cameron become tabloid headlines, as the the racist newspapers painted them both as living proof of the dangers of miscegenation.

Griffith’s saw his opportunity in these headlines and rewrites the novel's rape story to accommodate this new Jack Johnson driven fear, miscegenation. In the film the original rape victim, the 15 year old Marion Lenior disappears from the story and is replaced by a new victim Flora Cameron, (Ironically the Cameron family does appear in the original Clansman but Flora Cameron is a Griffith creation.)

Gus, the once brutal slave is also rewritten as a Captain in the Union army, (he even appears in officer's uniform with a saber by his side,) he is rewritten into an accomplished Negro who dares to believe himself worthy of a white woman. This new Gus now confronts the apply named Flora Cameron in the wood, but he does not attack her, instead he promptly takes a knee and proposes marriage to the shocked white girl. Flora Cameron, becomes so distraught at prospect of being seen a ‘low enough’ to be thought the wife of a Black man quickly proceeds to the nearest cliff and (untouched by the gentle Gus) throws herself to her death.

This rewrite played well with racist audiences who in their minds were so fearful of miscegenation that they could understand suicide as the proper alternative to the degradation of merely being offered a miscegenated marriage.

Jack Johnson held such power over White society that he made D. W. Griffith rewrite Birth of a Nation, a film considered by many to be America's first great epic film.

P.S. It is a common mistake to believe that Griffith changed the ‘rape’ to a ‘marriage proposal’ because of censorship. The film was in production in 1914 and the 'Fatty Arbuckle scandal' and its subsequent Hays Code were still seven years in the future. In 1914 Griffith was functioning free of any censorship; the decision was his alone.