The Birth of a Nation (1915) Artemus Ward Dept. of Political Science Northern Illinois University email@example.com
American Slavery In 1619, the first Africans arrived in the English colonies, in Jamestown, Virginia. Their status as enslaved people or servants was unclear, but laws restricting the freedoms of Africans began to appear by the 1640s. Slave labor spread across the south’s tobacco, rice, and cotton plantations. By the 1700s, the south had become a society whose prosperity and way of life was intertwined with slavery. Slavery in the English colonies provided a convenient source of unpaid labor. Whites used racial ideology to justify their enslavement of others. They defined Africans as a distinct group of people with inferior status. If whites used racism to justify slavery, what would be the reason for racism after slavery ended?
The Myth of the Exotic Primitive The characteristics of the myth of the exotic primitive are these: –Black people are naturally childlike. Thus they adjust easily to the most unsatisfactory social conditions, which they accept readily and even happily; –Black people are over-sexed, carnal sensualists dominated by violent passions; –Black people are savages taken from a culture relatively low on the scale of human civilization. Author Lorraine Hansberry outlined what she considered to be the genesis of the myth: "The sixteenth-century spirit of mercantile expansionism that swept Europe, and gave rise to colonial conquest and the European slave trade, was also father of a modem concept of racism. The concept made it possible to render the African a 'commodity' in the minds of white men, and to alienate the conscience of the rising European humanism from identification with the victims of that conquest and slave trade. In order to accommodate programs of commerce and empire on a scale never before known in history, the Negro had to be placed arbitrarily outside the pale of recognizable humanity in the psychology of Europeans and, eventually, of white America. Neither his soul nor his body was to be allowed to evoke empathy. He was to be — and, indeed, became, in a created mentality of white men — some grotesque expression of the mirth of nature; a fancied static vestige of the primeval past; an eternal exotic who, unlike men, would not bleed when pricked nor revenge when wronged. Thus for three centuries in Europe and America alike, buffoonery or villainy was his only permissible role in the ball of entertainment or drama."
Introduction The Birth of a Nation was almost certainly the most important American film of the silent era, both artistically and politically. It’s artistic achievements were so numerous that it set the standard for epics filmmaking—a genre that continues to this day. It’s political importance cannot be overstated. When the film was released, its content made it the first movie that went beyond mere entertainment geared toward lower and working class people to social and political significance for the upper classes and intellectuals. Its revisionist Civil-War-era history spawned the modern-day Ku Klux Klan, set the stage for Jim Crow laws, and continues to be controversial in its racist portrayal of African-Americans.
D.W. Griffith Born in Kentucky in 1875, his father was Jacob “Roaring Jake” Griffith a Confederate Army colonel in the Civil War. He began his career as a play-write, but had little success and soon turned to acting. He moved to New York and began directing films. He worked for Biograph and moved with them when they started to make movies in Hollywood. He wanted to make longer films. Nearly all films of the time were one-reel shorts (10 minutes) or two-reels. He started his own studio and made The Birth of a Nation in 1915—a feature-length epic. He saw film as an educational tool, rather than simply an entertainment medium. But his subsequent epics, which were costly to make, failed to make significant profits. He moved from studio to studio until he founded United Artists in 1919 with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. While some of his films for UA made money, others did not. He dropped out by 1924 and by 1931 he was no longer making films. In 1936 he was hired to direct the famous earthquake sequence in San Francisco. But his big-budget, epic style of filmmaking no longer fit into the increasingly rigid studio system. Mostly forgotten by film-goers, he lived alone at the Knickerbocker Hotel Los Angeles. In 1948 he was found unconscious in the lobby and died of a cerebral hemorrhage on his way to the hospital. In 1953, the Directors Guild of America instituted the D.W. Griffith Award, its highest honor. However in 1999 the DGA announced that the award would be renamed the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award because The Birth of a Nation “helped foster racial stereotypes.”
Artistic Achievement The film had always been widely regarded as an important artistic achievement in the history of filmmaking. D.W. Griffith made many movies before this epic film, but like most others of the time, his earlier films were short, and only a few of them—including The Politician’s Love Story (1909), The Iconoclast (1910), and The Reformers, or the Lost Art of Minding One’s Own Business (1913)—touched on politics. At over 3 hours, The Birth of a Nation, was the longest film ever made in America up to that point. It was also the most technically dazzling with its creative camera movement and angles, close-ups, long shots, panning and tracking, crosscutting to simultaneously occurring events, montage editing, iris shots, split screen, fade-ins and fade-outs, and thoughtful framing and composition. These techniques had been used before but never to such great effect and never in such a way as to involve the audience so deeply. Its content also gave it impact, a content so substantial and controversial that the film, among the first to make people take movies seriously, helped spawn film criticism. So many people saw it that it is widely credited with widening the film audience beyond the working class to include the middle class and intellectuals.
Myth A notion based more on tradition or convenience than fact. Film has always been casual in its presentation of history. Driven by commercial considerations, the need for wide audience appeal, producers consistently distorted and sanitized the past. In historical films Hollywood hopelessly romanticizes characters and events, invents love stories, and fabricates “the composite character” – a character that never existed as such but embodies a mix of people who might have done so, created in order to move the plot along. The problem is not that history is rewritten and transformed but that people absorb and believe the history that is presented in novels and film instead of the actual history.
Civil War Silent Film Myths 1.Despite the fact that the South started the war and was winning until the end of 1864 and their three decisive defeats in Alabama, Atlanta, and Virginia, the South was always portrayed as underdogs. 2.The films always blamed the war on abolitionists, ignoring the intricacies of slavery and the complicated political reality of the time such as congressional division, upheaval in political parties, and secession, among other issues. 3.Abraham Lincoln is always presented as saintly. His complex personal and political life and his constant criticism from all circles is never dealt with. 4.White women were always shown as frail, delicate creatures who easily fall in love with soldiers, despite the reality that they were as tough as Southern men. 5.Most Southerners are shown as wealthy slaveholders. In reality, less than 25% if white Southerners owned any slaves at all. Most were middle or lower class farmers who struggled to make a living. And it was these non- slaveholding farmers who fought and died on the battlefield, making it a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” 6.Blacks are shown as abusing political power. The reality was that blacks held majorities briefly in only two state legislatures and never had much genuine power; the real problem was white carpetbaggers. 7.Most civil war silent films ended the same way: a reconciliation of the North and South and a once again united country. Nothing could be further from the truth. The devastated Southern economy, Reconstruction, the disputed election of 1876, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow and racial segregation were all ignored. 8.When Reconstruction is portrayed, as in Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, racial cooperation is ignored in favor of racist and stereotypical portrayals of carpetbaggers and scalawags.
“Happy Darkies” or “Brutes” But perhaps the most damaging myths portrayed in civil war silent-era films had to do with slavery and race relations. Slaves were portrayed as helpful mammies, obliging butlers, smiling carriage-drivers, joyful cotton-pickers, and tap-dancing entertainers. When the war broke out, slaves were depicted as “happy darkies” eager to help their owner save his plantation and defeat the Yankees. Once the war ended, slaves either continued to be “happy darkies”—so called “good souls” who continued to help whites—or were evil brutes: hideous, savage, violent male predators who target helpless victims, especially white women. Of course the opposite was true with white men continuing to rape black women as they had under slavery.
Mythical Origins These myths were not simply the product of Hollywood screenwriters, producers, and directors lounging around swimming pools in Santa Monica. Instead, their false history was built on earlier, carefully crafted historical and cultural interpretations of the era written and rewritten from the moment the war ended; first by the post-Civil War press, for political reasons and later by conservative white historians and teachers who taught it as gospel in segregated classrooms. By the time of the first silent-era civil war film, many Americans had already come to accept dramatically revised view of the events and people of the war. They got their information from school texts, newspapers, magazines, history books, novels, Broadway plays, songs and poems…and then movies. Griffith’s version of history—a romantic view of an Old South where everything was fine until the North got meddlesome—continues to endure. The film’s message was regarded so seriously at the time that schoolchildren throughout the country were taken by their parents to The Birth of a Nation to learn history. Subsequent movies on the subject—such as Gone With The Wind—followed the same line, although with less offensive racism. To this day, many continue to subscribe to these myths, partly due to the power of films that continue to be watched, long after their original release dates.
The Need for a Mythical History? This cultural cleansing and revising seemed necessary to many, North and South, in order to reunite a nation fractured by a four-year conflict that saw the deaths of more than 620,000 American soldiers. Most Northerners and Southerners hated each other. One half of the country was victorious and the other half emerged not only defeated, but having lost 1 out of every 4 adult white males and witnessed the destruction of dozens of their towns and cities. While triumphant Union soldiers paraded through New York, Boston, and Washington at the end of the war, disheveled Confederates returned to the smoking, burned-out ruins of Richmond, Columbia, and Atlanta, the only Americans to lose a war until Vietnam. Southerners—soldiers and families—were devastated not only by the physical damage the war caused but by the psychological damage of losing the war, and with it the slave system, as well as by a turbulent Reconstruction and a morbid fear that they would always be subjugated by the North. The only way for the nation to move on was for the war to be seen as not started by anyone with no winners and losers and a tragic outcome where everyone fought gallantly. Does this justify the propagation a mythical history?
Rewriting History In order to realize reunification, it was thought that history would have to be rewritten so that Southerners would never again be seen as harsh slaveowners or as the people who started and lost the war. Some Northern businessmen invested heavily in the South, particularly in railroads that would eventually help the Southern economy. Novelists, playwrights and magazine writers reinvented Southern slaveowners as noble cavaliers, fighting not for slavery but for states’ rights and the honor of their Southern women and families. Both sides fought for the good of the Cause, no matter which cause, with a martyred President Lincoln bringing both sides together. Historians produced dozens of commercial works and school textbooks that blurred and obscured the sharp edges of the conflict. The true story of the civil war became lost in a tapestry of cultural history woven together over several generations, with the result hat many Americans came to see themselves the way the weavers desired. The myth, through the power of the media, had become accepted history to millions by the time the first feature-length movie was shown in 1903. Filmmakers believed they were telling true stories and offering honest characterizations. They told audiences that painstaking research went into historical films and audiences believed them. By 1910 Americans saw at least one film a week and by the 1930s they saw two a week. Film quickly became the most powerful force in American culture not to be replaced until the advent of TV a half-century later. TV replays films over and over and Americans consume them in large quantities. Americans are far more inclined to watch than to read and have always seen films as their nation’s story. The Civil War has been portrayed on film more than any other war: 500 silent-era and 200 sound films – nearly 3 times as many as WWII. Adjusted for inflation, The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With The Wind (1939) are among the top 5 commercially successful box office films of all time.
The Clansman: An Historical Romance About the Ku Klux Klan (1905) The second book in author Thomas Dixon’s trilogy on Reconstruction, the novel served to revive the Klan in the South and served as propaganda for racial prejudice and segregation. Its language was even more racist than the film it was based on. For example: “for a thick-lipped, flat- nosed, spindle-shanked Negro, exuding his nauseous animal odor, to shout in derision over the hearths and homes of white men and women is an atrocity too monstrous for belief.” Dixon said of the medium of film: “The moving picture man is not merely the purveyor of a from of entertainment. He is leading a revolution in the development of humanity—as profound a revolution as that which followed the first invention of print.”
The Civil War: Causes The story centers on two families: the Southern Camerons and the Northern Stonemans. Their friendship as the film begins symbolizes a united country. But Griffith’s politics soon become apparent: the “first seeds of disunion,” one of the titles explains, were planted by the “bringing of the African to this country.” Griffith blames the Civil War and its aftermath on blacks and politicians— with the exception of Abraham Lincoln, who is treated reverentially. Griffith’s once-happy families illustrate the consequences of these events when they are divided by a war that the movie labels “futile and abhorrent.”
Civil War Battlefields The large and lavish battle sequences must have moved audience enormously. In these scenes, masses of men move through the smoke of firing cannons, falling and dying. The younger sons of the Northern and Southern families die in each other’s arms, reiterating Griffith’s point that a hateful war has divided a loving people. Later, the director suggests the devastating effect of Sherman’s march through the South with a single close-up of a trembling, fatherless family, from which the camera pans to marching troops in the valley below.
Abraham Lincoln Griffith venerates Lincoln and absolves him of any responsibility for the War. In a carefully composed scene replicating the signing of the proclamation calling up the first troops, Lincoln is seated apart from the other politicians to make the point that he is different, that his only motive is to do good. When the signing is completed, the camera lingers on Lincoln, alone and looking miserable about what he has just done. Later, as the war comes to an end, he argues against those in his cabinet who would be vindictive toward the South. And when he is assassinated in another meticulously reconstructed sequence, the title announces that “our best friend is gone.” The deification of Lincoln as martyred saint has been common throughout film history.
Reconstruction As the fighting ends and Reconstruction begins, the film follows Dixon’s story more closely, and its view of history grows more and more distorted. The elder Cameron brother returns to his impoverished, grieving family, which becomes the focus of the film. He is soon followed by Senator Stoneman, who represents the evil, vindictive forces of Reconstruction, who hopes to build a presidential career by reorganizing the South with carpetbaggers, black voters, and black politicians. His only motive is personal ambition, and his evil, racially embittered mulatto house servant and mistress encourages him. In a state legislature, we see Stoneman’s black puppets in power—slovenly, barefoot politicians slouching in their chambers and lustfully eyeing the white women in the galleries. Senator Stoneman’s immediate goal is to put his protégé, the mulatto Silas Lynch, in charge of the state, making him “the peer of any white man living.” Stoneman’s plan for Lynch sours in the end, however, when Lynch, taking Stoneman’s promise seriously and acting as the white man’s peer, pursues Stoneman’s daughter Elsie, played with doll-like sweetness by Lillian Gish.
Racism Griffith’s portrayal of African-Americans is blatantly racist. All are either evil or stupid and, perhaps most offensively, most are played by white actors in blackface. He tried to “soften” the racism of the novel by adding the “good souls,” the Camerons’ happy and loyal house servants. Does the “good souls” technique help? What if films from this period only portrayed African-Americans as “good souls”?
The Rise of the KKK Flora Cameron (Mae Marsh)—another doll-like daughter—skips into the woods to fetch water; an indication of how low the family has fallen since the war. Diverted by the antics of a squirrel, she wanders too far and is spotted by Gus, and evil black man. His eyes bulge with lust as he follows her through the woods; hers bulge with fear when she spots him. She runs, he follows, and she throws herself off a precipice rather than submit to the advances she assumes his is about to make. Distraught, her brother sees some white children garbed in white sheets frightening black kids and an idea is born. He forms a fraternity of white men who wreak vengeance as hey ride through the night in white costumes “made by women” and the Ku Klux Klan is born. Their mission: to protect the purity and sanctity of white women from rapacious black men intent on raping them.
The KKK: Myth and Reality The Ku Klux Klan were the vehicle that Southern whites used to crush Reconstruction and reassert their political and economic domination of the South. Their ideology was race-based and their main tactic violence at night and by ambush against outnumbered and unarmed former slaves. However, in the The Birth of a Nation, the Klan is depicted as fighting against rapacious armed men. Dr. Allen Trelease, professor of history at the University of NC at Greensboro and author of the definitive study, White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction, found that there was not a single incident of Klansmen participating in any confrontation which might be loosely be described as a "fair fight.“
The Feminine Ideal Films from the early 1900s portrayed women as sex objects for male voyeurs. By the 1910s, a feminine ideal was promoted. Women were shown as maternal, religiously pious, and submissive—treated with reverence but only as objects: the doll-like possessions of men. At a time when women were fighting for the vote, Griffith’s attitude was far from progressive. He depicts women protecting their chastity at all costs, wearing heavy skirts, sweeping floors, preparing meals, and praying. The Birth of a Nation even equates America’s national identity with the virginity and racial purity of a female character by requiring she kill herself rather than risk being raped by a renegade black soldier, thereby martyring herself for the “birthed” nation’s new order of racial segregation.
The Film’s Climactic Scene at Uncle Tom’s Cabin In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe published the anti-slavery book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. After the bible, it was the best selling book of the 19 th century. It inspired countless plays and later films. Though it was critical of the institution of slavery it also helped popularize a number of stereotypes about black people: the lazy, carefree "happy darky”; the light-skinned tragic mulatto as a sex object; the affectionate, dark- skinned female “mammy”; the ”pickaninny” stereotype of black children; the “Uncle Tom”, an African-American who is too eager to please white people. The Birth of a Nation deliberately used a cabin similar to Uncle Tom's home in the film's dramatic climax, where several white Southerners unite with their former enemy (Yankee soldiers) to defend what the film's caption says is their "Aryan birthright” – just as Lynch is about to rape Elsie Stoneman. According to scholars, this reuse of such a familiar cabin would have resonated with, and been understood by, audiences of the time. The film ends with Elsie saved and Senator Stoneman is chastised for having betrayed not only his people but also his own daughter through his alliance with blacks. In Dixon’s view, somewhat obscured in the film, this scene marks the birth of a white nation unified by the pain of war.
Politics and Politicians Griffith’s portrait of politics and politicians made use of stereotypes and conventions that later became entrenched in the movies. He used the contrasting stereotypes of the saintly leader (Lincoln) and the evil politician (Stoneman and Lynch). He provided the kind of populist, collective solution that is seen in later political films: instead of seeking a leader to help them or working through the regular political process, Griffith’s oppressed white Southerners banded together, forming a vigilante group, and took the law into their own hands. Griffith’s later films also promoted the view that most politicians were evil and corrupt, motivated by base self-interest. Intolerance (1916)—which many consider Griffith’s masterpiece—consists of 4 interwoven stories, set in different historical periods, on the theme of intolerance. Made partly to refute the charges of racism provoked by The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance condemned persecution and criticized the excesses of capitalism— only the be labeled “Communist” itself. In Orphans of the Storm (1921), a movie about the French Revolution, he made it clear that rule of the masses was not acceptable either. He went on to make America (1924), a Revolutionary War epic, and the sound movie Abraham Lincoln (1930).
Protest and Deleted Scenes Objections to the film were intense when it was released. Many reviewers condemned its racism, including a New York Times critic who called it “inflammatory” and “controversial” even as he praised it as an “impressive new illustration of the scope of the motion picture camera.” The NAACP organized a precedent-setting national boycott of the film, probably the first such effort and one of the most successful. There were mass demonstrations that turned to riots when the film was shown in Boston and Philadelphia, among other cities. It was banned in Chicago, Ohio, Denver, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Minneapolis. The mayor of New York ordered the License Commissioner to cut some of the most offensively racist material. About 500 feet were deleted, much of it the result of Griffith’s attention to test audience response. Griffith deleted scenes of blacks molesting white women as well as the final scene in which blacks are deported to Africa. While no one knows for certain what all of the cut material contained, Francis Hackett in the New Republic commented: “The drama winds up with a suggestion of Lincoln's solution — back to Liberia — and then, if you please, with a film representing Jesus Christ in the halls of brotherly love.”
Blockbuster Despite the protests and criticism, The Birth of a Nation was the blockbuster of its day—the second biggest box-office success of the silent film era, second only to King Vidor’s antiwar film The Big Parade (1925). Lillian Gish, who Griffith made a star, remarked: “They lost track of the money it made.” Immediately perceived as a classic, it was rereleased in 1921, 1922, and 1930. Some 200 million people saw it before 1946.
Mr. Dixon Goes to Washington After the film’s release, Dixon went on his own campaign to promote it. He said: “The real purpose of my film was to revolutionize Northern audiences that would transform every man into a Southern partisan for life.” Dixon met with President Woodrow Wilson who screened it at the White House– the first film to be shown in the executive mansion. Wilson commented on the film, “It is like writing history with lightning.” Wilson was so enthusiastic that he introduced Dixon to Chief Justice Edward White of the U.S. Supreme Court to whom Dixon wanted to show the film. White asked Dixon: “You tell the true story of the Klan?” Dixon answered: “Yes — for the first time.” White leaned toward Dixon and said in low, tense tones: “I was a member of the Klan, sir. Through many a dark night I walked my sentinel's beat through the ugliest streets of New Orleans with a rifle on my shoulder. You've told the true story of that uprising of outraged manhood?” Dixon answered: “In a way I'm sure you'll approve.” White announced “I'll be there.”
Northern Racism The film was a vivid, dramatic rewriting of history that suited a lot of people at a time when blacks were migrating to the North in great numbers and racism was increasing there. On the film’s release, gangs of whites roamed city streets attacking blacks. In Lafayette, Indiana, a white man killed a black teenager after seeing the movie. The film promoted racism and racial segregation laws flourished. Intentionally or not, the film also promoted the revival of the Klan outside the South.
Revival of the Klan The Klan had disbanded in 1869. But Dixon’s book and Griffith’s film caused a resurgence. At the film’s premier in June 1915 in Atlanta, 25,000 former Klansmen marched down Peachtree Avenue to celebrate its opening. The film provided the Klan with the finest possible publicity for its revival. The modern Klan began its clandestine cruelty on Thanksgiving night, 1915, on Stone Mountain in Atlanta. By the mid-1920s their ranks reached 4 million. Over the years, The Birth of a Nation has not only been used as a successful recruiting tool for the Klan, it has also provided a kind-of valorizing template for their 20 th century anti-civil rights activities. For example, the first post-civil war Klan never burned crosses, but the book and film’s portrayal of the practice resulted in the practice’s adoption by the modern Klan. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor explained this in her majority opinion in the landmark cross-burning case Virginia v. Black (2003), where the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a state law criminalizing cross- burning on free speech/expression grounds. Virginia v. Black
Conclusion D.W. Griffith was a pioneering filmmaker who showed that skillfully crafted, epic (long-form) movies about serious topics could be both commercially successful and have dramatic effects on society. But novelty of technique and radiance of form do not compensate for unholy material. The Birth of a Nation was a reflection and perpetuation of a mythological rewriting of what actually happened during slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction that started as soon as the war ended and continues to this day. The Birth of a Nation helped revive the KKK, bolster Jim Crow laws, and perpetuate racial stereotypes.
References Brownlow, Kevin, Hollywood: The Pioneers (New York: Knopf, 1979). Christensen, Terry and Peter J. Haas, Projecting Politics: Political Messages in American Films (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2005) pp. 64-8. Pinsky, Mark I., “Racism, History, and Mass Media: Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, and The Greensboro Massacre,” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 28 (1983): 66-7.Racism, History, and Mass Media: Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, and The Greensboro Massacre