chapter  50
254 Pages

Fifty Key American Films

US history. Commemorating the 50-year anniversary of the end of the Civil War, the film was released as a major roadshow attraction. At the symbolically named Liberty Theatre on New York City’s Broadway, tickets for the film cost 2 dollars, showing how far removed this kind of cinema was from the earlier nickelodeons and signalling film culture’s aspiration to become part of high culture. Birth of a Nation was the first movie to be screened at the White House. Directed by D.W. Griffith, a major director of the silent era, who, contrary to popular legend, rarely invented new cinematic techniques but frequently refined and combined them in ways so that they effectively became associated with his name, Birth of a Nation has often been hailed as a cinematic masterpiece. But from the beginning critics (often the same who praised its aesthetic) and activists denounced and protested its virulent racism. Writing in The New Republic in 1915, Francis Hackett argued that ‘this film is aggressively vicious and defamatory. It is spiritual assassination. It degrades the censors that passed it and the white race that endures it’ (Lang 1994: 163). More recently, James Baldwin has called it ‘an elaborate justification of mass murder’ and Richard Dyer a film about ‘ethnic cleansing’ (Baldwin 1976: 45, Dyer 1996: 169). Released after World War I had broken out but before the United

States entered the war (a context that helps explain the references to peace), Birth of a Nation was the most visible and notorious Civil War film released in the teens. In 1913, an astonishing 98 Civil War films were released (Stokes 2007: 181). Birth of a Nation came at a time when the difference between documentary and fiction film was rather iffy, if only because the term ‘documentary’ would not be used before 1926 (when John Grierson applied it to Robert Flaherty’s Moana). Arguably the line between documentary and fiction remains

difficult. Time and again, the film justifies its authenticity – and authority – by inserting what it calls ‘historical facsimiles’ (tinted differently) and excerpts from Woodrow Wilson’s History of the American People from 1902 (which opens Part II of the film). The status of such historical reproductions, however, is tricky, especially in scenes where the fictional characters are also present (for instance, when Mrs Cameron appeals for mercy from Lincoln, ‘The Great Heart’, or at Lincoln’s assassination). The relationship between fiction and fact gets further complicated because Austin Stoneman was a fictionalized (and demonized) version of Thaddeus Stevens, a Member of Congress from Pennsylvania who helped draft the Reconstruction Act and the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution (which helped secure rights, such as citizenship and due process, for African Americans). Despite such obvious slippages and fictionalizations, however, Griffith and others frequently defended the film on grounds of its historical accuracy. He famously claimed that:

The time will come, and in less than ten years … when the children in the public schools will be taught practically everything by moving pictures. Certainly they will never be obliged to read history again. Imagine a public library of the near future, for instance. There

will be long rows of boxes or pillars … At each box a push button and before each box a seat … you will merely seat yourself at a properly adjusted window, in a scientifically prepared room, press the button, and actually see what happened. There will be no opinions expressed. You will merely be

present at the making of history. (Quoted in Lang 1994: 4)

Given the kinds of opinions that are expressed in Birth of a Nation, we should be grateful that Griffith was spectacularly wrong. But we should also note that today makers of controversial films still defend themselves by insisting on a film’s accuracy, a strategy that often aims at closing down discussion about a film and that disregards the fact that each film by necessity presents only a limited selection of things and cannot escape adapting a particular point of view. Within this broader historical issue, the representation of the South

(a regional identity) remains problematic. The film has often been understood as trying to valorize the South, as being nostalgic for an antebellum South, a ‘Plantation Idyll’. The introduction of Dr Cameron as the ‘kindly master’ suggests as much, especially since the

camera tilts to his feet to reveal two puppies, symbolically coloured black and white, that seem perfectly content until ‘hostilities’ are introduced in the form of a cat. In this vision, the South is peopled by docile and subservient blacks who do not challenge their masters, let alone ask for equality (see, for instance, the many shots in which the Camerons’ Mammy – in blackface – approvingly hovers in the background). But such ‘a quaintly way … is to be no more’, the intertitle introducing the ‘Southland’ announces. Richard Dyer has argued that even though the film privileges the South over the North by giving it much more screen time and a much more elaborate family structure, the South needs Northern whiteness, embodied by Elise (Lillian Gish) who is lighter and more brightly lit than Margaret (Miriam Cooper), the daughter of the South. In this context, the film can be understood as doing a form of

complex cultural work: it works to give the South a new racial, cultural, and national identity at the historical moment when it was made, the teens. Michael Rogin has taken this logic further and argued that the film displaces a number of anxieties present in US culture onto a black/white conflict. For instance, the early twentieth century saw the emergence of a ‘new woman’ who was no longer confined to the private sphere, but was seen in the streets, in department stores and at the movies, by herself. White slavery films from the period, such as Traffic in Souls (George Loane Tucker, 1913) rephrased anxieties about women’s emerging public presence and (sexual) power as concerns with what might happen to unaccompanied women. By representing white women as virginal and black men as oversexualized, Rogin has argued in regard to Birth of a Nation, ‘Griffith displaces sexuality from white men to women to blacks in order, by the subjugation and dismemberment of blacks, to reempower white men’ (Lang 1994: 273). By consolidating the stereotype of the black rapist, the film also suppressed another historical truth: that especially in the antebellum South, black women were much more likely to be raped by their white masters. By offering a sophisticated reading of the film’s racism, Rogin

suggests that to note the film’s racism is not enough, that the more difficult task is to uncover the multiple ways in which racism can function. The turn of the century saw a decline of race relations across the board, from the systematic disenfranchisement of African Americans in Southern states to the de facto segregation and discussion of antimiscegenation statutes, among others, in the wake of white panic about the Great Migration of African Americans to Northern cities in Northern states. Birth of a Nation not only posited the antebellum

plantation as an ideal, it came at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was revived (and it would be used as a propaganda and recruitment tool by the Klan). The unwillingness to hire African American actors for parts and the will to keep African American extras away from white women throughout the film speaks to the film’s racism at the level of production. How African American extras experienced their jobs – and whether it was more desirable than the limited kinds of other jobs available to them at the time – is a question that would deserve much more investigation. Racism at the level of production had complex consequences on

the level of representation. There are multiple ways of signifying ‘blackness’ in the film. It uses stereotypically exaggerated blackface derived from the minstrelsy tradition (as in the case of the Stonemans’ male servant), more ‘realistic’ blackface (as, for instance, in the case of the faithful Mammy), as well as African American extras. There is even a moment when we are supposed to be able to distinguish between white characters in blackface and black characters played by white people in blackface. Some have read this as a moment when the film’s ideology undoes itself, while others argue that the multiple uses of blackface speaks to the relative ease with which blacks were deemed recognizable. The film also distinguishes between ‘faithful’ African Americans (who essentially continue in the mode of the ‘grateful slave’) and rioting incendiaries (who are seen as incapable of any social or governmental organization). But note how even ‘faithful’ blacks are treated differently by the camera, made to hover in the background of shots, never getting close-ups. Camera techniques, such as framing and distance, as well as performance (think of the little kids who fall off a cart at the beginning of the first Southern sequence) are thus also mobilized to dehumanize (and infantilize) all of the black characters. It is in the recasting of history as a (family) melodrama that the

film’s racism becomes most apparent. Melodrama uses strongly polarized characters (villains and heroes), and thus can be used as a segregationist vehicle. It also wants to start and end in a ‘space of innocence’ from which the villain has to be expelled (Williams 1991: 28). Birth of a Nation casts Africans as villains who have intruded onto a supposedly unproblematic space – ‘The bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion’, an early intertitle asserts (note the absence of a subject/agent in that sentence). The expulsion of African Americans from the white cabin by the Ku Klux Klan in the role of the hero completes this melodramatic narrative arc. (The rescue sequence featuring the Klan also resonates with and seeks to repress an image of another cabin – Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle

Tom’s Cabin [1852], which had sought to generate anti-slavery sentiment by capitalizing on black domesticity.) This need to expel blacks is in tension with the film’s plantation ideal, maybe a reason why we never see a deportation of blacks to Africa (though there has been some speculation among critics if there was such an alternate ending). Most fundamentally, blacks are being excluded from the family melodrama: the two white, heterosexual couples at the end span North and South – giving birth to a new, distinctly white nation. In this conflation of family, race, and nation (as if these terms were interchangeable), African Americans are simultaneously deprived of family and citizenship. This use of melodrama to assert racial lines also explains that the most vilified characters in the film are mulattoes who resist the film’s racially melodramatizing logic. Nonetheless, we should keep in mind that the relationship between

aesthetics and politics is always complicated and never predetermined. For a long time, critics attempted to separate the film’s aesthetics from its politics, which allowed them to hail the film’s narrative and visual sophistication (in terms of editing, use of close-ups, economies of scale, etc.), while condemning its content. As we have seen, however, aesthetic strategies are used to make political points. What kinds of political points are being made through an aesthetic technique, however, is often quite open. Griffith himself had used cross-cutting in A Corner in Wheat (1909) in order to argue against the US class system, thus making a progressive film, before using the same technique to racist ends in Birth of a Nation. Birth of a Nation generated a flood of reactions, starting in 1915. In

newspapers, Dixon and Griffith defended themselves against charges of racism; white film critics recognized the aesthetic importance of the film and seemed unable to deal with its content; Southern partisan journalists eagerly embraced the film; the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), founded in 1909, tried to stop the film from being screened, protesting the film’s exhibition over 120 times between 1915 and 1972 (Gillespie and Hall 2006: 185). Censorship battles waged in many places; in Boston, for instance, the entire Gus sequence was cut, even though censors often seemed more concerned about the film’s ability to incite riots than about its depiction of African Americans (ibid.: 185, 191). The year of the film’s release the Supreme Court ruled that movies were not protected under the First Amendment of the US Constitution, as free speech, a ruling that would be overturned only in 1952. Nonetheless, it is important to note that this ruling had less to do with discriminatory representation and much more with anxieties about, for

instance, the representation of violence and sexuality on screen. The NAACP by and large lost the censorship battles, and the Production Code, which later regulated what could be shown on screen, explicitly prohibited the representation of miscegenation. There were also a number of cinematic reactions. Griffith himself

responded by making Intolerance (1916), which sought to respond to charges of racism but turned away from the topic of race relations. The most powerful response came from Oscar Micheaux, a black writer and filmmaker who was a crucial director in a fledgling race film industry which in the early teens started to produce black-cast films for black audiences. In 1919, Micheaux directed Within Our Gates, a film that is often seen as a direct response to Birth of a Nation, which imagines a diasporic nation not based on race and which includes a powerful cross-cutting sequence (alternating between a lynching and a near-rape) that uses this particular cinematic technique to denounce rather than add to racism. Today, it may seem easy to dismiss Birth of a Nation’s racism, but

we should not underestimate the longevity of the film’s influence or its modes of representation. In the early 1930s, a Payne Fund study found that middle and high school students’ ‘favourable’ opinion of African Americans dropped from 7.46 to 5.93 (on a scale of 11 to 0) after watching the film, and was unlikely to come back up (Lang 1994: 199). Authorities have often remained anxious that provocative films could incite race riots (including Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing). For decades, Hollywood’s white male characters made it their task to be ready to kill their women before non-white men could get to them (as in John Ford’s 1939 film, Stagecoach), to preserve them from a ‘fate worse than death’, suggesting just how much the film helped shape representations of white femininity. RichardWagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, the music which accompanies the Klan’s rescue is powerfully (and differently) used in other films, including Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). Structures of representation are not easy to overturn and may be unconsciously replicated. Birth of a Nation serves as a powerful reminder that politics cannot be disengaged from aesthetics while at the same time the relationship between politics and aesthetics remains complex and malleable.