D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), the first feature-length studio production in the United States and the first feature film to be screened at the White House, is considered by many to be an original text of cinematic aesthetics as well as the foundation of a broad range of racist stereotypes about African Americans. The film has been mistaken as an accurate history of race relations in the aftermath of the Civil War. However, it is more accurate to claim that the film has created history from racist fantasies and that it persists in doing so. Critic Manthia Diawara has called the film the “grammar book” and “master text” of racism in the United States, which fixes the wide range of secondary and servile roles for African Americans that support White dominance. The Birth of a Nation intensified racial phobias and has been used as a recruitment film for the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), while inspiring a contemporaneous critical response to its representational repertoire in the form of protests by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the production of alternative images of African Americans. This entry describes the film and its impact.
Until The Birth of a Nation, movies consisted of two or three reels of film; they were usually about 15 minutes in length and depicted simple and casually filmed events. Griffith’s film institutionalized filmmaking into a more serious endeavor. The cast rehearsed for 6 weeks, and filming took 9 weeks. The editing took 3 months, and the resulting film comprised over twelve reels, with a running time of more than 3 hours.
The film is said to be the first to use many film and editing techniques, among them the close-up, cross-cutting, rapid-fire editing, the iris, the split-screen shot, and both realistic and impressionistic lighting. These techniques enhanced the framing of realistic images and the production of a convincing and persuasive story about historical events. The film was authenticated by Woodrow Wilson as “like writing history with lightning!” But rather than history, it depicted a race-based ideology in which African Americans and their allies upset the social order of the nation.
The Birth of a Nation, based on Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman, traces the anxieties in the postemancipation South and provides a noncondemnatory view of the actions taken to repress and control African Americans. The film is set at the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Reconstruction period, when Northern victory led to the elimination of the institution of slavery. The film depicts two families, the Northern Stillwell family and the Southern Camerons, but it focuses on the latter as the main protagonists. The story builds on national internal conflict, in which the South is deemed the authentic moral core of the United States and the North is degenerate, decadent, and overly permissive.
The Southern Camerons are sympathetic victims of the war; they are raided by a renegade Black troop despite being the benevolent protectors of their slaves. They suffer and struggle during the war, and their way of life is destroyed as a result of the liberation of African Americans and the postwar chaos of riots and pillaging. These African Americans are portrayed as unintelligent and primitive brutes who seek to topple Southern order and disrupt social civility.
Northerners are portrayed as morally weak abolitionists who allow White women to mingle with Black men and grant too much power to their African American charges. As in the case of the Northern Stillwell family, Black servants are depicted as overly confident and self-possessed. Northern permissiveness about miscegenation is embodied in the insurrectionary mulatto Silas Lynch—whose very name inscribes the narrative mandate to eliminate him.
Silas Lynch has self-confidence considered beyond his lot, combined with all the features of racial degeneracy: rapaciousness, immorality, criminality, and moral and emotional instability. He embodies anxieties about the potential revolutionary furor of the “mulattoes” who might incite racial unrest, like the mixed-race leaders of the Haitian revolution. He might lead the growing population of enraged Blacks around him into civil disobedience.
The most dramatic moment of the film is the attempted rape of a White woman by Gus, one of the militant Blacks. Rather than submit to his will, she throws herself off a cliff, preferring death over the touch of a Black man. Then, a group of men disguised in white sheets emerge out of nowhere to battle the Black rebels. These men who hide their faces are depicted as heroic saviors of a lost South and defenders of a nation.
The Birth of a Nation sends the message that the only recourse for the South is to develop civic groups, like the Ku Klux Klan, to restore order and protect the Whites from further dispossession. The film not only documents the emergence of the Klan, but aids in the dissemination of its ideology of racial hatred. In fact, The Birth of a Nation continues to be used as a tool of Klan indoctrination. It paints a portrait of national politics in which the salvation of the United States lies in resurrecting the values of the fallen South.
Masquerading as history, The Birth of a Nation actually dramatizes an ideology of racial division and hierarchy. Its depictions of African Americans tend to reflect pseudo-scientific ideas about racial mixing that circulated during the era of slavery. These ideas emanated from a biological argument called “hybrid degeneracy,” which emerged after the Civil War and continued to have social influence until the 1930s. According to the theory of hybrid degeneracy, racially mixed peoples are emotionally unstable, irrational, and biologically inferior to the “pure” races of their parents. These ideas held sway among people who believed that mixed-race peoples were the source of social unrest due to an unhappy combination of ambition and racial degeneracy.
The Birth of a Nation reinforced a certain racial ideology in the United States and has greatly influenced Hollywood filmmaking It promoted a social order in which races are divided in discrete categories and racial mixing and commingling is strictly forbidden both socially and legally. After the Civil War, Jim Crow laws were enacted to ensure segregation and the perpetuation of racism. Among these laws were the antimiscegenation laws that outlawed marriage between people of different races and denied rights of inheritance to their offspring. The ambiguity about the social role of mixed-race African Americans was removed by the rule of hypodescent, or the “one-drop rule,” that deemed anyone with any Black ancestry whatsoever to be African American. The fears about miscegenation were reflected in the Hollywood Production Code, which forbade the depiction of on-screen liaisons between people of different races.
The Birth of a Nation provided the racist template for the representation of African Americans as villains or as serving in various ways to support a White protagonist (mammy, maid, servant), which has appeared throughout the history of Hollywood in different incarnations. Nonetheless, this film legacy is constantly under contestation and reconstruction. Many filmmakers who seek to represent African Americans in a nuanced and non-stereotypical manner must deal in some way with the long shadow of The Birth of a Nation.
African Americans; Black Cinema; Emancipation Proclamation; Film, Latino; Intermarriage; Ku Klux Klan; Lee, Spike; Media and Race; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); One-Drop Rule; Popular Culture, Racism and; Slavery; White Racism
The Birth of a Nation was first released on February 8, 1915. The film's depiction of African Americans as idle and brutish sparked a massive wave o
An early film epic (1915), directed by D.W. Griffith and based on a racist novel, The Clansman , by the Southern Baptist minister Thomas...
The Birth of a Nation, perhaps one of the most controversial movies in U.S. history, premiered as The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the...