Today we’re going to talk about the Birth of a Nation, not the 2016 version about Nat Turner, the 1915 OG in all of its black and white. For those who […]
Today we’re going to talk about the Birth of a Nation, not the 2016 version about Nat Turner, the 1915 OG in all of its black and white. For those who aren’t familiar, Birth of a Nation, originally called The Clansman, is a silent film from 1915 that is seen as the first example of a feature motion picture.1 Prior to this film, movies were 15-30 minutes long and much closer to what we would consider “shorts.” This 3-hour long epic forever changed the world of American Cinema and used countless innovative film techniques that we take for granted today.
As someone who is obsessed with shades of gray, who thinks that things rarely fit into absolutes, who is a massive proponent for radical empathy (unless, of course, someone ate the last of my Swedish Fish), I can unequivocally say that Birth of a Nation is the most harmful and the most racist movie ever made.2 It is a picture-perfect example of what should be avoided at all costs. A small production team of three racist white men told a racist story filled with propaganda and fear tactics and helped to usher in a new era of hatred and violence against Black Americans.
It tells the history* of the American South from the Civil War through Reconstruction from a southern sympathetic perspective and is largely credited with the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan (I think I’ve been saying this wrong my whole life, I could have SWORN it was klu). It uses white actors and actresses in blackface to portray black characters in the story who are all immoral, criminals, sexual deviants, animalistic, and power-hungry.
*Please note that the word history is used here VERY loosely.
Why am I talking about Birth of a Nation in this series on nuanced representation of marginalized identities? Because it’s an epic example of the power of representation in a horrifying way. This is an example of why this conversation matters and a basic guide in what NOT to do. Spoiler alert Birth of a Nation fails the Samantha Williams Intentionality Test for Marginalized Representation ™(pending) (I know, I know, you’re shocked). While there are countless examples of problematic marginalized representation in the arts throughout history, the treatment of marginalized identities in this movie and its long-term effects on our society today sets the stakes. It sets the stakes for how important it is for all of us, art creators and art consumers alike, to be EXTRA vigilant for nuanced and intentional representation of marginalized identities in film. And also it gives me a perfect opportunity to wax poetically about Bertolt Brecht and Art as propaganda, so there’s that. Let’s dive in.
- Does it have a diverse production team
Umm no. The writer, director, and producer were all southern white men. Thomas Dixon Jr, the author of the book and play, “The Clansmen,” the text Birth of A Nation is based on, wrote this story with the intent to “set the record straight” when it came to the portrayal of Reconstruction.3 And by “set the record straight,” he meant to deliberately use propaganda as history to “win sympathy to the southern cause.4” Cool, cool, cool, cool, we love to see it.
A disgruntled white man, born in 1864, Dixon was committed to finding a historical backing to support his own prejudices and social attitudes (A healthy dose of “righteous” indignation is the catalyst for the best and worst parts of humanity). To create social change, Dixon sought to use the power of story to write a narrative moving enough to shape public opinion on a national scale. Frustrated by the limitations in reaching a national audience through books and plays, he decided to turn his epic story into a motion picture. Dixon teamed up with D.W. Griffith’s startup movie company, and H.E. Aitken served as the producer.5
Williams Intentionality Rating: Unacceptable
- Did it engage in collaborative processes with the marginalized community(ies) in question?
No…. In fact, there was an incredible amount of outrage and feedback from the Black community at the time. Other than the Mammy and faithful servant character, all other Black characters in the movie are depicted as “impudent, vengeful, or malicious in their conduct toward whites.6” Furthermore, Black Americans were NEVER in control of state government in South Carolina, though that’s the driving plot of the movie’s second half and the reasoning for the need for the Ku Klux Klan.7 Countless Black cultural leaders pointed out how harmful the fictitious and malicious portrayals of Black people in this story were. My favorite quote came from Kelly Miller, the Negro Dean of Howard University, who wrote to Dixon, “Your teachings subvert the foundations of law and established order. You are the high priest of lawlessness, the prophet of anarchy.8” (tell ’em sis).
But just like a colonizer, Dixon’s response was,” My books are hard reading for a Negro, and yet the Negroes, in denouncing them, are unwittingly denouncing one of their greatest friends…9” Essentially I know you and the needs of your community better than you do… Yikes.
Rating: Go directly to Jail. Do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars.
- Did they have intentional, transparent, and accessible explanations for any controversial or non-traditional casting choices?
Birth of a Nation chose to use white actors in blackface to portray the roles of each Black character with a major role (some Black people were used as extras in certain scenes). To be fair, Griffith did have a public statement on the issue. Griffith “defended” his decision to use black face by saying, “on careful weighing of every detail concerned, the decision was to have no black blood among the principles…10” I guess technically, this is an intentional, transparent, and accessible explanation. Though, to be fair, I just assumed that morality and a baseline desire to not be racist was a give in… I won’t do that again.
Williams Intentionality Rating: Steaming pile of trash
- Did they present marginalized identities with intentionality and nuance, not as irresponsible caricatures?
Absolutely NOT. Every representation of a black person is done in terms of a racist and harmful stereotype that portrays Black people as animalistic and evil.11 We see the Mandingo in Gus– the renegade negro, the Jezebel in Lydia Brown– Stoneman’s lascivious mulatto housekeeper and mistress, the Mammy in the character of the Mammy (’nuff said that’s literally what they named her), the Uncle Tom in the unnamed male faithful servant to the Cameron’s; and the Black Brute in Silas Lynch– the conniving politician.12
The very first representation of black people in the movie portrays the caricature of the pickaninny. Two Black children fall off the back of a wagon and lay there in the ground until they are picked up comically like sacks of potatoes and thrown back onto the wagon. The pickaninny caricature, like all of the others, was used to dehumanize Black people and make their lives and safety seem inconsequential.
Rating: F with a note to see the professor after class
But Wait There’s More:
I have to make one more point before I give the final rating for Birth of a Nation. Film, and its ability to impact culture, is fundamentally different from other performing art mediums. Music videos, visual art, live theater, musicals, concerts are all mediums that lend themselves to critical analysis. They have aspects built into their very structure that serve to remind the audience that this is not reality; this is an artist’s interpretation of reality. It’s fantasy, it’s creation. Whether that comes in the form of a curtain opening and closing around a performance, an intermission, a set being moved, or performers bursting into song (I realize this is a normal facet of life for my roommates, but from what I’ve heard from others people randomly singing their inner thoughts is not a normal occurrence in day to day life), all other forms of performing arts remind us that we are entering into a space of suspended disbelief to experience art.
Bertolt Brecht talked about the importance of these reminders, these invitations, to think critically in his writings about the “alienation effect.” As someone who was uber concerned with art as propaganda and how it could subconsciously influence masses, he was particularly critical of film as a medium. Film’s more realistic immersion increases the potential for influence on public opinion without the normal level of critical analysis. Dixon used all of this to his advantage as he purposefully told a fictitious narrative through film that he hoped would be viewed and shared as fact.
While Dixon may not have invented the Southern sympathist view of Reconstruction, he perfected it and accelerated its spread. Birth of a Nation tells a story where Blacks and Whites in the South were content with their lot before the war. It claims that Southern white women were left at the mercy of rogue bands of Black Northern regiments during the war, who invaded cities and pillaged and raped the southern belle’s left behind. It paints Reconstruction as a time of lawlessness where Black Americans vengefully repressed their White Southern neighbors. This fictitious retelling of American History began displacing the truth. And while this version of events is about as real as Kylie Jenner’s lips, the film’s use of “facsimile’s” like the one below was used to blur the line of truth and propaganda.
President Woodrow Wilson, a friend of Dixon and a supporter of the KKK, was quoted sharing his Southern Sympathetic views throughout the film.
Many people who saw this film, the first feature motion picture, thought of it as a documentary. “… using a new and increasingly influential medium of communication, and as an instrument that deliberately and successfully undertook to use propaganda as history, the influence of Birth of a Nation on the current view of Reconstruction has been greater than any other single force..13“
Because of film’s unique ability to portray fiction as truth and the far-reaching effects of such, harmful and untrue representations of marginalized identities in film should receive even more scrutiny than in other art forms.
Bonus Rating for Film: Minus 50 additional points
No. No. No. Birth of a Nation does NOT pass the Samantha Williams Intentionality Test for Marginalized Representation ™ (pending). But, if you’re ever super bored and looking to learn about your country at it’s worst… if you like to lightly trigger yourself… and if you want another reason to feel deeply uncomfortable whenever you listen to Wagner… by all means check it out.