Birth Of a Nation

Stephen Boston



            Birth of a Nation was a film that broke several artistic boundaries in the film industry yet was seen as the most racist film of any generation. This has caused it to be a film under heavy debate since its release in 1915. One can never look past the racist depictions that this film portrays in it. However, to truly understand the film and explore its importance in the study of minorities in film, one must look at this film from all perspectives.

            D.W. Griffith grew up in Kentucky under a father who was a Confederate hero and was the first to place the racial views in his head. Here is where the ideals of blacks and whites were created for D.W. Griffith. In his head and in his upbringing, his views of blacks and whites were real. The black race being lower then the whites and never really deserving of equality. That is where the ideal for his film Birth of a Nation originated. As far as he was concerned this was a heroic epic of the white people. This is the first context in which one must explore this film.

The second is what was going on in America during the time of this films release. No more then fifty years after the Civil War, this film was made. African-Americans were nowhere near finding equality or having civil rights that they were said to have or presumed to have. Separate but equal was still the main mindset in America. Most of the South still hated African Americans, lynched them, and the KKK was strong. When you look at all these social contexts that were going on during the time of the films release, there is no way that this film was seen as racist in the majority of the population. Most of the South probably saw this movie as truth and as redemption against the North from what happened after the Civil War and redemption against the African-American population that was gaining more control. I am sure that there was a section of the population that was appalled by the depictions I this film, but not nearly enough to make it seem like a racist film for that time period. Sad but true this is how a lot of the Nation felt during the time of the release. That is what makes this film so unfortunate for the African-American community. It may be extremely racist, but when put in context of time and where America was, it can still be propaganda of truth for many ignorant white Americans today. You combine that with the numerous film technologies and breakthroughs that came from this film, and it will always be seen as a masterpiece despite its racist overtones leaving no retribution for African-Americans and the way they were represented.

That leads into its context and today. I feel that there is no way that this film could be made a talkie today. The overabundant racist depictions and the rise of a KKK that is known for its bigotry and hate towards any one who is not a WASP would not be allowed in a culture today that is trying its hardest to head towards a more equal Nation and World. There are too many groups that would not stand for this kind of racism. The way that the mulatto helper of Stoneman is seen as a lusting, sexual object that obsesses over her white suppressor would never be tolerated. Black Supremacy trying to wipe out the whites in the South, black men as sexual prowlers of white women, and lazy black men are all images that would not be tolerated in society today. Not even if it was made to mock or show the stupidity of the time do I think this film would stand a chance in society today.

Finally, this is a film that shows not a single positive image of African-Americans. There are only a few that one could say were positive, and even those are false. For example, a mulatto who is given the power of being a high General in the South is disgraced by showing Lynch becoming power hungry, being a black supremacists that puts whites down and a drunk that wants to own and control a white women as his wife just show that in power African-Americans are power driven and lose control. To go along with this, when the African-Americans take power of the legislation in the South, the become lazy, take their shoes off as if not house broken, and one of them even sips on some liquor. The worst thing about this scene is that it is one of the few scenes with real African-American actors in it. This simply projects these stereotypes even more. Also, as stated before, the African-American women, Stoneman's helper, are seen as objects of lust and sexual seekers while the men, as in Gus's character, are seen as aggressive sexual beasts that prowl after white purity. There is no positive image there. Then you throw in that most of the characters that are black are played by white people in black face, blacks are seen as the evil of the South that need to be wiped out by a glorious and honorable KKK, and finally that that only worthy African-Americans in the film are those that stay loyal to their white Southern owners and stay true to the white ideals. If it is possible to find one positive racial image, then I am blind.

Through its remarkable breakthroughs in film and what the camera could do, Birth of a Nation can be explored as a film that set the standards for future film development and masterpieces. However, one can never look past the way that African-Americans were horribly represented and depicted on film. This has caused this film to be such a great film to explore when studying film and especial minorities in film. This debate will continue way past my life and beyond. One must hope and believe that the ignorance of the few that still see this as a positive image of reality can be overturned and that this film can only be seen as a studying device for all those that look to explore the art of film and the sad realities that can come from the ideals of those who create film and movies.