The races were both formally and unofficially divided into a strict hierarchy. White males were at the top of that hierarchy, and other races were below him. By 2006 America had been transformed, but as the present discussions surrounding undocumented workers illustrate, racial tension will never be far away from the surface of American political, cultural and social life.
The racial situation in America at the time of Birth of a Nation (1915) was far removed from that which exists today, despite the fact that problems still exist in 2006. Birth of a Nation was based on a racist play, The Clansman, written in 1905 by a North Carolina Baptist minister, Thomas Dixon. The film tells of the beginning, middle and aftermath of the Civil War and has what has often been described as a vicious and degrading view of African-Americans. In the film they are often viewed as either "happy slaves" working in the fields (with no sign of a whip in sight), loyal house slaves or child-like, grinning close-ups of uncertain intelligence:
Racist laws currently in place at the time of its release led to a series of scenes being cut from the film, such as that between a mulatto slave and her white master. Abraham Lincoln is portrayed as a bumbling traitor to his race while black men are either mindless clowns and/or potential rapists. The movie, while the most successful in history until Snow White some 20 years later, was highly controversial. It is still so: when it was won a place in the list of the Top 100 Films of All Time, the Academy was widely accused of racial insensitivity.
Ion first release, it caused riots in Boston and Philadelphia, and was banned in many other cities such as Chicago, Denver and Minneapolis. As a further reflection of its time, the leading African-American characters were played by white actors in black-face: actual black actors were relegated to supporting and extra roles. This reflected the dual view that blacks were not capable of acting in serious roles, and also the supposed 'fact' that audiences would not accept them in such roles.
Interestingly, a reaction to Birth of a Nation occurred, as film-makers such as the African-American Emmett Scott produced works such as Birth of a Race (1919) and other films like Within Our Gates were produced by Oscar Micheaux. By the time of Gone With the Wind (1939) black actors could now fill the leading roles that were preserved for them, with Hatty McDaniel playing Mammy, and Butterfly McQueen portraying Prissy. While most racial segregation laws were still in place across much of the South, black characters could now be 'taken seriously' by white audiences in a way that film-makers had considered impossible before.
Indeed, it seem as though film-makers have often been more conservative than their audiences on racial matters. Movies that have been made under the shadow of a supposed audience reaction have often just received the reaction they deserved as entertainment and/or works of art. By the late 1960's the racial situation had, at least officially, transformed in America. The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Brown versus the Board of Education and the Civil Right movement in general had made most segregationist and prejudiced actions officially illegal.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) may be regarded as a watershed because it places an interracial marriage front-and-center