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 speak to the relative ease with which blacks were deemed recognisable. 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 organisation). 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 mobilised to dehumanise (and infantilise) 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 polarised 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 capitalising 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 melodramatising 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 crosscutting 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 recognised 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 tough censors often seemed more concerned about the film’s ability to incite riots than about its depiction of African Americans (Gillespie and Hall 2006: 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 crosscutting 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. Richard Wagner’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.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: D. W. Griffith Corporation/Epoch Producing Corporation. Director: D. W. Griffith. Screenwriter: D. W. Griffith and Frank E. Woods (adapted from Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman). Producer: D. W. Griffith. Cinematographer: G. W. Bitzer. Cast: Henry B. Walthall (Ben Cameron), Mae Marsh (Flora, the younger sister), Miriam Cooper (Margaret, the older sister), Josephine Crowell (Mrs Cameron), Spottiswoode Aitken (Dr Cameron), Lillian Gish (Elsie Stoneman), Ralph Lewis (Austin Stoneman), Elmer Clifton (Phil Stoneman), Mary Alden (Lydia Brown), George Siegmann (Silas Lynch), Walter Long (Gus).]
James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work, New York, Dial Press, 1976.
Manthia Diawara, ‘Black Spectatorship: Problems of Identification and Resistance’, in Black American Cinema, New York, Routledge, 1993.
Richard Dyer, ‘Into the Light: The Whiteness of the South in Birth of a Nation’, in Richard H. King and Helen Taylor (eds), Dixie Debates: Perspective on Popular Culture, New York, New York University Press, 1996.
Michele K. Gillespie and Randal L. Hall (eds), Thomas Dixon Jr and the Birth of Modern America, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 2006.
Robert Lang (ed.), The Birth of a Nation, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1994.
Melvyn Stokes, D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation: A History of ‘The Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time’, New York, Oxford University Press, 2007.
Linda Williams, Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1991.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.