H Jonathan Klijn
Dr. Gloria Y.A. Ayee
Harvard University, Govt E-1313
February 18, 2021
As the theatre darkened on a winter’s day in New York in 1915 and the band announced the opening credits to The Birth of a Nation, a message from director D.W. Griffith flickered across the screen: “This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and Reconstruction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today.” By the end of the screening, it was clear to some at least, that Griffith’s paean to Southern whiteness was a false “historical presentation” of worst-fear archetypes, pandering to a downtrodden postbellum nation (Rogin). Despite opposition, Birth was a success, garnering praise from then-President Woodrow Wilson (Franklin). And while admittedly redefining early filmmaking, Griffith also deliberately blurred a line between free speech and propaganda, birthing a legacy still with us today (Steinmetz).
The Birth of a Nation occupies a treacherous place when considering cinematic landmarks, one, film critic Roger Ebert felt, joined films such as Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 portentous advocacy of Nazi Germany’s extermination doctrine, forming a small genre of great filmmaking that, like Birth, attempts to validate evil. However, neither Griffith nor Riefenstahl were any more depraved than the cultures that produced them (Ebert). Each held up a jaundiced camera, showing a nation who it was. And so, to analyze Birth is to unshroud something of nativism, and something of its capacity for evil.
Griffith’s opus is preoccupied with debasing what he depicts as toxic Black power—not to be confused with Black Power, which equally set 1960s racist hair on fire—in the Reconstructionist South, through the Ku Klux Klan. Black characters (many are white actors in blackface) become performative tropes: servile or savage. Klansmen, by contrast, present as courageous and ardent. Based on The Clansman, a racially-charged 1905 novel by Southerner Thomas Dixon, Griffith’s celluloid adaptation of the novel follows the—Union—Stoneman family of Pennsylvania and the—Confederate—Cameron family of South Carolina, chronicling their experience of the U.S. Civil War and subsequent Reconstruction (Rogin). Birth weaves its narrative around the romance between the Stoneman sons and Cameron daughters. The film’s first act covers the outbreak of war through President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, establishing a bucolic, idealistic view of pre-Civil War America, implying that the North should have left well enough alone. The second, dealing with Reconstruction, is where the most inflammatory racism lurks while delivering breathtaking enactments of battles recalling Civil War daguerreotypes infused with vérité and intentionality.
Griffith appears most perturbed at the emergence and sustained influence of a post-slavery Black middle class with voting rights and agency (Gaines). When, in Narrative of the Life, Frederick Douglass exclaims, “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man,” he verbalizes the most potent of white fears, whether pre-abolition, during Apartheid in South Africa, or, for that matter, every time a Black man is murdered by the police in contemporary America.
A man of his time, Griffith views color as marker of history, political allegiance, cultural connections, and social discourse. What drives him—and still fuels what bell hooks terms the “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”—is terror of the very thing driving Douglass: dismantling institutionalized racism through economic, legal, and cultural means, gaining first-class citizenship for African Americans while empowering them in daily life (Douglass). Griffith fears W.E.B. Du Bois’ truth that “the Nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land” and rejects what Dr. Cornell West calls “Black love” (Masterclass). Instead, Griffith infantilizes Black love, dance, and music, portraying it as currency for procuring white approval.
Birth unfolds through unending dichotomies. On the macro level, it dwells on prominent juxtapositions, North/South being the most obvious, as is war/peace. But look deeper and smaller clashes abound, from urbane abolitionist Austin Stoneman, antithesis to goodly plantation-owning Cameron men; and contently subservient Southern enslaved vs. power-crazed Northern mulattos (Benshoff.) Republicans, radical and conniving, show as mortal enemies of valiant Ku Klux Klan white saviors, who majestically bulwark an about-to-be-birthed nation.
Griffith is a master of semiotic messaging and visual shorthand, an early intertitle proclaiming “Hostilities” is followed by a montage of a kitten tussling with (whitish/blackish) puppies. For Griffith, the most potent signifier is the Black man as purveyor of violence—and rape. The white female, doe-eyed with cherubic curls and effervescent countenance, is thrown at the mercy of Black brutes, newly liberated, aiming to wrest sexual and political power from whites. Illustrating this unthinkable cataclysm, Southern maiden, Flora Cameron, is left no choice but die by suicide to escape a predatory mulatto renegade. It is one of many loaded tropes.
Tensions escalate when Black citizens protest publicly and mulatto governor, Silas Lynch, endeavors to pressure the diaphanous Elsie (Lillian Gish), daughter of abolitionist Senator Stoneman, into marrying him. Stoneman, complete with megalomaniacal mulatto mistress, has become an “uncrowned king” after Lincoln’s assassination. Lynch is empowered to pursue Elsie through Stoneman’s earlier declaring Lynch as “the equal of any man here.” When Elsie is identified as the soon-to-be Mrs. Lynch, Stoneman becomes aggressive toward Lynch, Griffith’s shorthand code that abolitionists manipulate non-whites through avarice and false promises. Later, at the double wedding of Ben and Elsie and Phil and Margaret, the joining of the two families signifies the denouement of Griffith’s thematic polarities. The nation is birthed, not through multiculturalism, but within genteel sameness.
With Birth, Griffith leans into a sanguinary/submissive binary of Blackness. He underlines W.E.B. Du Bois’ stark comment, “How does it feel to be a problem,” penned in response to the African American struggle to achieve favorable ipseity in an America insistent on aliening them as “the Negro problem” (Du Bois). Griffith exposes tension between the “problem” and its white supremacy solution.
Upon release, when several cities declined to screen the film, a Racial Uplift argument was trotted out, posing that the film “was actually not a slur against the Negroes of 1915 at all but rather quite the reverse. In showing how far the African American had progressed, it was instead a compliment to them” (Rylance). The film was, its defenders claimed, self-inoculated against accusations of racism, seeing it presented versions of Black Americans that, by 1915, did not exist anymore, representing “the negro, not as he is now at all, but as he was in the days when he had just had the chains broken from him and when he was rioting in the deliciousness of liberty” (Rylance).
Writing on Birth for Cinema Journal, Michele Wallace asks, “What does it take to turn a human being into a thing? Is this even possible? I do not believe so” (Wallace). But some try. Griffith did. Dixon too. The evidence of this strain of thought, hellbent on dehumanization, high on white supremacy, was there when, in 2020, Gregory McMichael, his son Travis, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, hunted Ahmaud Arbery, turning “a human being into a thing.” The Birth of a Nation fostered an atmosphere of nativism still with us, auguring the birth of the nation we are today. And we are still deciding, it seems, if this is the nation we want to be.
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