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April 17, 1915
Guest post by Alex Bishop, undergraduate student at Iowa State University.
An April 17, 1915, article featured in the Chicago Defender outlines actions taken in the state of Ohio by then Buckeye State Governor Frank B. Willis. In response to a telegram from then editor of the Cleveland Gazette, Harry Smith, the governor took prompt action against a photoplay that was preparing to open statewide. The photoplay, a collection of images or film clips, was the early twentieth century version of turning plays or novels into a motion picture display. Usually these photoplays were distributed like a movie or an exhibition that went site to site. This particular photoplay was known as The Nigger and depicted images from Tom Dixon’s “vicious plays.” These plays were based on Dixon’s novel The Clansman, which was an early influence on the Ku Klux Klan.
Editor Harry Smith and Governor Willis had been friends for some time since serving together in the state legislature more than a decade before this incident. Smith wrote to the governor to inform him of the film, which depicted and encouraged extreme racism, and requested something be done to stop its “plans to vilify Ohio citizens.” Looking to modern times, a comparison could perhaps be made with this movie’s imminent release to the thwarted December 2014 release of The Interview (starring James Franco and Seth Rogen).The Interview’s release was essentially stopped when Sony (the film’s distribution company) experienced a hack manipulated by the North Korean government due to the film’s content and premise of assassinating the hermit nation’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
There are obvious stark contrasts to The Interview and The Nigger as one was meant to be satirical and the other was just outright racist and purposefully demeaning. However, both were taken down in similar fashions, one legally and the other not. Governor Willis took immediate actions to protect the citizens of his state and, as the Defender stated, the lives of Ohio’s “Black Citizens.”
By contacting the state’s Board of Film Censors, the governor took action to revoke the film distributor’s certificate to show the film. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, that film distributor is a well-known distributor today that has released major box office successes. Nowadays this distributor is known as 20th Century Fox and is no longer representative of the 1920s Fox Film Corporation that distributed a film such as The Nigger, but it is interesting that such a well-known company, at least in our contemporary eyes, could allow such a film to be dispersed nationwide. Films are allowed to represent graphic displays of history, and we have seen it displayed violently in many films yet, interestingly, this is one that (regardless of what historical value it may have had) was quickly nixed.
Another point of this article that is very interesting is how quickly this state executive acted upon being informed of such a film. It would be interesting to see if this type of film was being allowed elsewhere across the nation and how northern states compared to their southern counterparts. African Americans even in the north were not free from the discrimination and violence that is historically associated with the south. Even in their leisure time, the movies, they could not escape it. What is more is that there existed methods to applaud this hatred and violence in the form of distributing such a film. However, it is ultimately reassuring to see that there were progressive politicians who, at least in this instance, had the best interests of all of the people at heart. Though it took a very long time and though there are still remnants even today, ending racism and creating a more equal and livable society can start with the actions of even one person such as the actions that Governor Willis took in condemning and ultimately ending the distribution of this film.