A US Civil War (1861–65) drama, Birth of a Nation centres on two white families, the Camerons from the South and the Stonemans from the North. Before the war, during a visit of the Stonemans to the Camerons, Ben Cameron falls in love with Elsie Stoneman, and Phil Stoneman with Margaret Cameron. The war, and politics, separates the families and the couples. Abolitionist Congressman Stoneman supports mulatto politician Silas Lynch, who after the war is elected Lieutenant Governor in the South. Meanwhile, Flora Cameron leaps to her death to escape the advances of a black man. And Ben Cameron, who was wounded during the war and pardoned by President Lincoln after a plea by Ben’s mother, forms the Ku Klux Klan. The conflict comes to a climax when the Camerons hide in a cabin and Elsie Stoneman is held hostage by Lynch, who wants to marry her. The Ku Klux Klan rides to the rescue, disenfranchises blacks once again, and the film ends with the two white couples’ double honeymoon.
Birth of a Nation is in all likelihood the most troublesome film in US history. Commemorating the 50-year anniversary of the end of the Civil War, the film was released as a major road show attraction. At the symbolically named Liberty Theatre on New York City’s Broadway, tickets for the film cost two 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). Later, James Baldwin called it ‘an elaborate justification of mass murder’ and Richard Dyer a film about ‘ethnic cleansing’ (Baldwin 1976: 45; Dyer 1996: 169).
Released after the First World War 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’ was not 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 fictionalised (and demonised) 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 fictionalisations, 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 valorise 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 Elsie (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 so 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 oversexualised, 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 twentieth 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 anti-miscegenation 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 did not only posit 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 into 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.