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Despite the film's racist subject matter, there was not a single, prominent white film critic

 in all of America who found The Clansman odious when it opened in

“The City of Angels.” Indeed, most critics . . .greeted the film with “boundless enthusiasm”

 

 

The Birth of a Nation

 A Racist American Epic

By Amin Sharif

D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is perhaps the most significant and most problematic of all the American films. There can be no doubt that the film is a feat of technological and artistic genius. Yet, at the same time, it must be conceded that this film help codify many of the negative stereotypes that haunt Afro-America today. Long before Willie Horton was invoked by the political right in America as a boogey man, D. W. Griffith’s characterizations of the “lustful” slave Gus and the “audacious” free mulatto Lynch in this film gave credence to the already prevailing myth that most black men, slave or free, were a threat to white American society in general and white women in particular.

When one first looks at The Birth of a Nation with hindsight, one is quickly reminded of the propaganda films created by the Nazi Reich a few decades later. Emotionally stirring and meticulously shot, the films of the Nazi Reich were also testaments to genius--albeit diabolical genius. While no connection has ever been established between The Birth of a Nation  and the propaganda films of the Hitlerian Reich, any intelligent mind can fathom the purpose that lay behind each cinematic effort. Both the Nazi Reich and D.W. Griffith’s efforts were aimed at stirring dominant populations into believing that the restoration of a defeated white fatherland was possible. And both the Nazi and Griffith’s efforts at such restoration were to come at the expense of a racial or religious minority.

Perhaps it is to be expected that the propaganda films of the Nazi Reich and D. W. Griffith should bear much in common. Both filmmakers were deeply influenced by patently racist literature. In the case of the Nazis, Hitler’s polemic Mein Kampf provided the fascist regime with the intellectual and moral justification that culminated in the infamous “Final Solution.” Thomas Dixon’s novels--The Clansman and The Leopard’s Spots--provided the impetus for Griffith’s Birth of a Nation .

But, in the case of Griffith, no real impetus was required. Born and raised with Southern sensibilities, Griffith was fated to produce The Birth of a Nation  or something close to it as soon as he discovered his directorial talents. Be that as it may, the results of the Nazi cinematic efforts undoubtedly contributed to prevailing anti-Semitic feelings which led to a genocide involving over six million Jews, Gypsies, and other “inferior” races. In the case of the Griffith’s effort, an additional justification was provided for the continued lynching of African-Americans and their subjugation after Reconstruction under Black Codes and Jim Crow laws.

D. W. Griffith was born in 1880 into an “improvised” Kentucky family. Raised by his father, a Confederate colonel who was given the name “Thunder Jake” for his roaring voice, D.W. Griffith was exposed early in his life to tales “of Johnny Reb, the chivalrous South, and Confederate bravery” according to film historian Lewis Jacobs. And Jacobs insists that it would be D. W. Griffith’s Southern and Victorian sensibilities that would define all of his artistic endeavors including his most famous--The Birth of a Nation .

There is much evidence that Griffith came to the film industry only after finding limited success as a poet, playwright, and stage actor. We know that some of Griffith’s poems and short stories appeared in such publications as Good Housekeeping and that at least one of his plays A Fool and a Girl received only lukewarm approval from critics after being produced in 1907 in both Washington and Baltimore. It was in that same year a friend, Max Davidson, suggested to Griffith, then unemployed, that he might find work as an actor for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. 

Reluctantly, Griffith became an actor for the film company. But Griffith conceded to becoming a film director only after securing a promise from the company that he could keep his acting job. According to Lewis Jacobs, the first film Griffith directed was The Adventures of Dolly

Within the next four weeks, Griffith directed five more films. It was while directing these films that Griffith began to see the “limitations” of film-making. It was Griffith’s desire to transcend these limitations that led to his “experimental” film style. But Griffith was not the only one who was experimenting with the new medium of film. The Europeans were already succeeding in making revolutionary innovations in cinematic content and style. Ever jealous of his European rivals, Griffith was always on the lookout for “a subject that would lend itself to a spectacular use of his talents.” When the film critic Frank Woods alerted him to the success that Thomas Dixon had in dramatizing his novel The Clansman , Griffith knew, at once, that he had the material he needed to construct an American film epic.

From the film’s conception, Griffith “began production on a vast scale.” Even before the first scene of the film was shot, Griffith put his cast through six weeks of “grueling rehearsals.” An entire county was rented in order to shoot the famous battle scenes. Thousands of yards of cotton sheets were secured to robe his Klansmen.  And hundreds of extras were used in the nine-week shooting of the film. The film production was so costly that most movie executives felt that the film would have to gross a staggering $250,000 in order to break even. But despite all of the difficulties involved in the production of the film, The Clansman opened at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles on February 8, 1915. The admission for the film was the unheard sum of $2.

Despite the film's racist subject matter, there was not a single, prominent white film critic in all of America who found The Clansman odious when it opened in “The City of Angels.” Indeed, most critics, as well as the white audiences, greeted the film with “boundless enthusiasm” and referred to it as “a new milestone in film artistry.” At the New York debut of the film, Thomas Dixon, whose novels provided the source material for the film, declared that the title The Clansman was too timid for Griffith’s epoch. Dixon shouted out to Griffith, above the thunderous applause of the audience, that the “so powerful a film . . . should be renamed The Birth of a Nation.”   

But what exactly did Griffith put on the scene to gain such acclaim from critic and audience alike?

The Birth of a Nation was nothing less then the film version of the tragic rise and fall of Dixie according D. W. Griffith’s [mis]understanding of American history. The film, according to Jacobs, “reviewed the Civil War, the despoiling of the South, and the revival of the South’s honor through the efforts of the Ku Klux Klan.” But the “story proper” begins with the tale of Phil and Tod Stoneman of Pennsylvania who are visiting their school friends, the Camerons of Piedmont, South Carolina. A love affair develops between the Stonemans and the Cameron’s sisters. These love affairs are interrupted by the Civil War. 

At this point, the Camerons boys join the Confederate army while the Stoneman boys join the Union army. It is during the war that the younger Camerons and Tod Stoneman are killed and Piedmont undergoes “ruin, devastation, rapine, and pillage” at the hands of the Union. After the war, the father of the Stoneman’s is elected to Congress and “agitates for the punishment of the South.” This is, of course, during the Reconstruction period. 

The film then concentrates on the “reign of carpetbaggers” and unrestrained “looting Negroes” who form a militia and take over the state legislature. These scenes were constructed to justify the rise of the “Invisible Empire” of the Ku Klux Klan. Through many twists and turns, the film finally reaches its climax when the Klan metes out justice to the Negro militia and thwarts the plans of white carpetbaggers and arrogant Negroes alike. An epilogue ends the film which states:

“The establishment of the South in its rightful place is the birth of a new nation . . . The new nation, the real United States . . . in which a brotherhood of love should bind all the nations.”

Although The Birth of a Nation ends with a platitude about brotherhood, little of this sentiment is found extended to the black slaves on the plantations of South Carolina in its scenes. Lewis Jacobs’ assessment of the film's attitude to the enslaved Negro is summed as follows:

The film was a passionate and persuasive avowal of the inferiority of the Negro. In viewpoint it was, surely, narrow and prejudiced. Griffith’s Southern upbringing made him completely sympathetic toward Dixon’s exaggerated ideas, and the fire of his convictions gave the film rude strength.

Particularly brutal and scurrilous was Griffith’s assessment of the early Reconstruction period which granted newly freed Negroes the franchise of the ballot. In the film, Jacob’s points out that:

The entire portrayal of the Reconstruction days showed the Negro when freed from white domination, as arrogant, lustful, villainous. Negro Congressmen were pictured drinking heavily, coarsely reclining in Congress with bare feet upon the desks, lustfully ogling white women in the balcony.”

But, in addition to this general attack on the recently freed Negro, The Birth of a Nation depicts in the most graphic terms the individual threat that freed Negro men posed to the gentle flower of the South--white women! Griffith’s creation of the character of Gus, the freed Negro servant of the Camerons as a black skinned renegade who wishes to deflower Southern maidenhood for apparently only sexual purposes, represents the arch stereotype of the Negro man as “sexual monster.”

This indictment of the Negro male as an American-made monster is encoded in a patently racist scene the explanation of which was provided by the famous actress Lillian Gish. In this scene of heightened and sexually charged drama a “colored man picks up the Northern girl (played by Gish) gorilla-fashion.” It was then that Gish’s hair which was “very blond, fell far below” her waist “and Griffith, seeing the contrast in the two figures, assigned me to play Elise Stoneman.” The implicit threat implied by this scene becomes explicit when the “brutish” Gus advances toward a white woman culminates with her hurling herself off a cliff rather than be conquered by his bestial advances. 

Only slightly less threatening is the free mulatto, Silas Lynch, who is raised to be “a leader of his people.” It is Lynch that brings the scandalous “program” of racial equality to his people. And it is Lynch who boldly rents a house “next door” to the Camerons which foreshadows the modern “integration” movement. There is no doubt what the meaning of these scenes had for the white men and women who saw them. They reinforced in their minds, “The necessity of the separation of the Negro from white, with the white as the ruler.” 

 It would be this encoded message that would ring  throughout the South, under the official banner of States’ Rights, that would seek to deny the Negro any and every modicum of human dignity until opposed aggressively by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

We have said that The Birth of a Nation received only critical acclaim by those within the movie industry. But its acceptance outside of the industry was another matter all together. Almost immediately upon the film’s release, a progressive coalition of blacks and whites gathered to agitate against its racist depiction of the Negro and its historically revisionist leanings. 

Not only was the movie made the subject of a campaign of opposition by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It was also criticized by Charles Elliot, President of Harvard, who depicted The Birth of a Nation  as a “perversion of white ideals.” Oswald Garrison Villard and Jane Addams both thoroughly condemned the film. With the former calling the film “a deliberate attempt to humiliate ten million Americans.” These and other remarks were indicative of deeply felt sentiments that resulted in riots in Boston and other “abolitionist” cities. To Griffith, it must have seemed that his cinematic attempt to bring the nation together had only resulted in deepening the divide between North and South.

Still the result of Griffith’s effort did provide one irrefutable lesson that many film makers even today sometimes fail to understand. No film no matter how ingenious or passionate can ever solve a social issue as complex as racism. The most a film can do is to agitate for a solution. Whether that solution is in accord with the principle morality of fairness is, altogether, another subject. And although he made other films, Griffith never again enjoyed the notoriety and fame that came to him from The Birth of a Nation. The film would be hung around his neck, like the nooses, figuratively and literally, hung by white mobs around the necks of so many innocent Negroes, for the rest of his life.

Source: Lewis Jacobs. The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History. New York: Teachers College Press, 1968.

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update 4 August 2008

 

 

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