chapter  15
15 Pages

Into the light: the whiteness of the South in The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation (USA 1915) shows the forging of a national identity, in which geographical division (North versus South) is transcended through a realization of a common white racial identity, but one defined in Southern terms. The film’s grand spectacle (never before applied to a US subject), the vivid but nuanced central performances and the terrific momentum of the editing leave the audience little time or space to reflect on how the film presents this history. These cinematic elements are, however, in many ways having to make up for a rather faltering presentation of the film’s central explanatory concept, race. This is evident in the characterization of black, and especially mixed race people, where the reality of the instability of racial categories is implied, an instability itself a product of Southern history. It is still more evident in some aspects of the way white people are cinematically glorified. Situated as it is within developments in the film industry, developments at once formal, technical and commercial, Birth has recourse to certain embryonic cinematic elements (notably of star presence and lighting) to represent the whiteness of white people. These elements however have strongly Northern connotations. As a result, it seems as if the film suspects that the South is really after all not quite white enough to give birth to the new white nation.