Friday, March 16, 2012

I watched Birth of a Nation.

The Birth of a Nation, as you may know, is a silent film about the Civil War and its aftermath that was made in 1915 by famed director D.W. Griffith. His father was a Confederate soldier, and his film glorifies white supremacy. Many people have said that it is a "great" film, not because of its racist content but because of its film-making techniques. Having finally seen the film, I feel ambivalent about that viewpoint. It is a stirring piece of propaganda, no question. It draws you in. I assume that Griffith not only felt strongly about the end of African-American slavery, but also had the skills needed to present his feelings accurately on film. Both the passion and the knowledge are required: in this case, I don't see how you can separate them.

This film is a peerless exercise in world-building: the construction of an alternate reality. There is nothing sloppy or superficial about it. As a Yankee, I've never really been exposed to these concepts before - certainly not with such heartfelt conviction. And sadly, I now see echoes of the film in our modern race relations. For example, if you believe that the sole purpose of the KKK was self-defense against marauding blacks, then there is a direct link between that and the recent killing of Trayvon Martin. (As it happens, the town where that killing took place traces its history of racial tension all the way back to 1911.)

But back to the film. Birth of a Nation is three hours long; the first hour depicts the war itself, and the next two hours cover Reconstruction and the rise of the Klan. The first hour moves quite slowly (the war scenes especially are not what we've come to expect in a war movie) but after that it picks up and gets more exciting. I like silent films, so I perhaps have more tolerance for old-fashioned film techniques than most people. One of the interesting things about silent film is that the characters talk all the time - you see them having conversations, you just don't hear what they're saying. And in this film especially, it would have been nice to know what was being said in some of those scenes. Did the actors have lines to learn?

There is no way I can convey the scope of this film, the breadth and depth of its fearful imagination and sheer implausibility. I can only focus on a few things that most struck me:
  1. This film is called The Birth of a Nation because, according to Griffith, before the Civil War our nation did not exist. I'm not real clear on what we had instead, or what the purpose of the Constitution was, since Griffith doesn't mention it at all. Instead he refers to some unspecified arrangement for state sovereignty that was made when the British surrendered in 1781. I also don't understand how the South could secede if there was nothing to secede from. But there it is. (It would be kind of nice to think that our nation was born when slavery ended.)
  2. There are two characters in the film - a man and a woman - who are described as "mulatto." They appear to embody a stereotype which differs from the stereotypes of both blacks and whites. Blacks are essentially passive - Griffith repeats over and over again that Southern blacks, individually and collectively, would never have become troublesome if it were not for the influence of outside agitators: white "Scalawags" and vengeful Northerners. But the mixed-race characters are neither passive nor stupid (another essential part of the black stereotype.) They are cunning, scheming, devious, passionate and power-hungry. In fact they motivate much of the action in the film.
  3. Although this film focuses on race, it is also noteworthy for its constructions of gender. Unfortunately I don't have time to discuss such characters as the "mammy," or Lydia, the mixed-race woman, or the cult of pure Southern white womanhood, which gives rise to some of the creepiest scenes in the movie. I can only provide one example:

    Early in the film there is a scene in which the white folks go down to visit the slave quarters. The happy slaves are all dancing. (They're on their lunch break. Griffith specifically informs us that they got a two-hour lunch break in their 12-hour work day, "from 6 to 6." I take it this is meant to demonstrate how well they were treated.) Anyway, all the slaves visible in this scene are men. Towards the end of the film, the former slave-master gets arrested (because a Klan uniform was found in his house) and there's another scene in which he is paraded through the slave quarters in chains. Naturally his former slaves come out to mock him. In this scene two black women prominently occupy the foreground and do most of the jeering. I believe they are there because if you want to show the total humiliation of a white man, the best way to do it is to say that even black women now have an advantage over him.
I do recommend this film, despite its disturbing nature (incidentally, I watched it in three separate sessions. It's too much to take in all at once.) It's educational. I've read a fair amount about this aspect of American history, but it was never so real to me before. Visual images, for some reason, have more impact than words. And as I said above, this history still has relevance today.

One interesting piece of trivia, from IMDB:
Some of the black characters are played by white actors with make-up, particularly those characters who were required to come in contact with a white actress. The person playing the Cameron's maid is not only clearly white, but is also obviously male.

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