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The Birth of a Nation, USA 1915

Posted by keith1942 on August 28, 2018

This notorious title from the early days of US cinema regularly resurfaces. Now Spike Lee, in his new film BlacKkKlansman (2018), has used extensive clips from the film. With his particular skill in dramatising the contradictions of US culture Lee and his team present a screening of the film watched by contemporary members of the Ku Klux Klan. Elsewhere in the film a young Afro-American audience listen in horror as a veteran describes the murder and mutilation of a black man by a white mob in 1916. This sequence makes the point that the film fuelled a revival of the Klan as well as sparking riots and protests across the USA. The Rape of Recy Taylor offers a parallel in its use of the films of Oscar Micheaux, a rebuttal to the 1915 epic. The latter offers a central representation of the racism that underpins US culture; this is a title that always pays discussion.

The Birth of a Nation is both famous and infamous. Its success, its innovation, and its grandiose epic proportions have made it one of the most influential films in US history. But its racist treatment of the US Civil War and post-war construction have made it a notorious and problematic classic. There have been quite a number of attempts to play down the racism in the film and/or to excuse Griffith for the content. I incline with the comment in an excellent book by Scot Simmon (‘The Films of D. W. Griffith’), who discusses some of these ‘defenders;

“what is evident to all but the most determined apologists: The Birth of a Nation has evolved into one of the ugliest artefacts of American popular art.”

Paul Gilroy, in his introduction to Channel 4’s screening of the Thames Silents version (1993), commented that it was a ‘white supremacist text’, but also a film masterpiece. He pointed out how the film sexualises the conflict through the use of melodrama. Yet the film is an enduring presence in US popular art, and it needs to be confronted. Simon’s article is really helpful because he studies the film in some detail, examining its influences and its influence, and recognising those aspects that contributed to its power and success.

The surviving film is not complete; the version most widely available is from the 1921 reissue. Griffith cut some scenes because of the complaints about the film, but it is not completely clear what it is that has been excised. The remaining film still offers a clear narrative. In a manner reminiscent of much of his work at Biograph, Griffith presents his picture of the US Civil War and the reconstruction of the defeated South in terms of family melodrama.

The film opens in 1860 before the start of the war between the States and introduces us to the Cameron family (Southerners) and the Stoneman family ((Northerners). The opening two reels allow the development of audience identification, especially with the Cameron family. We witness a visit by the Stoneman sons to the Cameron household in Piedmont, South Carolina. The Doctor and his wife head the Cameron family. The eldest Cameron son is Ben, who, during the war years, becomes ‘the little colonel’. The youngest Cameron son Duke and the youngest Stoneman strike up a friendship and earn the title ‘chums’. The eldest Cameron son is Phil. The youngest Cameron daughter Flora is known as the Little Sister. A romance develops between Phil and the eldest Cameron daughter, Margaret. And Ben is taken with the absent Elsie, with her father Senator Stoneman in Washington, when he sees Phil’s portrait of her.

The Cameron family is given a positive, warm representation, which includes loyal, uncritical black slaves. There is also an early example of a long Hollywood line of identifications, sympathetic characters presented with their pets, in this case two puppies and a kitten. (The main villain, a mulatto Silas Lynch, is later shown mistreating a dog!) However, the representation of the Stoneman family is more problematic. There is no mother, though her absence is not explained. In keeping with his roots in nineteenth century melodrama, mother figures are central to Griffith’s notions of the wholesome family. Stoneman walks with a stick, often associated with either weakness or villainy. In Reel 2 a title card warns the audience of Stoneman’s ‘fatal weakness’ – a mulatto servant, Lydia Brown, who becomes his mistress. This is the viper in the nest. And the representation picks up on a warning placed clearly in the opening title of the surviving film:

‘The bringing of the African sowed the first seed of disunion’. Black people are the central problem in the film, and they create disunity within the ‘American family’. It is important to remember that the Civil War was fought over the Union and the South’s attempt at secession, not directly over slavery.

Scott Simmon relates Griffith’s film to the developing genres of the Civil War film and to the costumes dramas set in the South. He details some of the contemporary films that dealt with similar material. Miscegenation is clearly a common issue in these films. At the Old Cross Roads (1914) has white-skinned Annabel discover ‘tainted blood’ and she tells her white-skinned fiancé

‘as long as there is a stain of Negro blood we can be nothing more than friends’.

Clearly, popular film tended to reproduce the dominant racism of wider society. There is also the myth of the pre-war South, a paradise of courtly gentlemen, dainty belles and happy, unthreatening slaves. A key sequence in the film is the ball before the Southern gentlemen ride off to war; a spectacle repeated in innumerable later films. The ball is intercut with bonfire and celebrations in the streets, tinted red in the original. Despite the plotting including both families the film clearly privileges the experience of the South.

In the third, fourth and fifth reels, Griffith presents some aspects of this war. In a classic melodramatic convention the ‘chums’ meet and die on the front line in opposing armies. The final shot shows the fallen bodies in a deathly embrace. The second Cameron son dies in a scene depicting Sherman’s ‘march to the sea.’ This is a powerful sequence, using superimposition and cross-cutting, that depicts Sherman’s army and the burning of Atlanta. Gilroy’s point about ‘sexualising’ the conflict is borne out here in a title card:

‘The torch of war against the breast of Atlanta.’

Griffith also uses the powerful image of a harassed mother and children, both intercutting with the soldiers, and superimposing the image within the same frame as the battle.

There is only one major battle sequence, which is Petersburg and this also uses tinting. As Simon points out though, it acts more like a generic battle of the whole Civil War. Again the emphasis is on the heroic South, even as they lose. Colonel Ben Cameron is the key figure in a courageous but hopeless charge against the Union lines. The battlefield meeting convention recurs as the Colonel falls wounded at the feet of Captain Phil Stoneman. Ben convalesces in a Washington Hospital and he is able to develop a relationship with Elsie, who is a nurse there.

Reel 6 dramatises the assassination of Lincoln, and the ascendance to power of ‘carpetbaggers’ in Washington. Once again history is personalised as Elsie and Phil are in the theatre audience. Lincoln’s death makes Stoneman a key political figure determined that the South should be ‘treated as conquered provinces’ and to

‘put the white South under the heel of the black South’.

His mulatto mistress is shown as a noxious influence, encouraging a black opportunist, Silas Lynch. This sets the scene for the way in which Griffith film develops a more shocking dimension in the second part, titled ‘Reconstruction’.

Ben Cameron returns to the defeated South, family loss and a home ruined by war. For Griffith and the Cameron family the Southern blacks are incapable of either equality or democracy. There is a Manichaean split in the representation of black characters in the film. They are either unquestioningly devoted and loyal servants, or they are given to feckless singing, dancing, drinking, and in some cases even to rape and violence. Their excessive acting style emphasises these characteristics. One scene has a Cameron servant whipped for loyalty to his white master. The black population is seen as at the mercy of leaders and carpetbaggers, who

‘cozen, beguile and use the Negro’.

This threat to family and southern order creates the response, the Ku Klux Klan [Clan in the film] – for the film, heroic defender of the endangered white community.

In line with generic conventions this threat is personalised in attacks on white women. Gus, ‘the renegade’ pursues the Little Sister who jumps to her death rather than face dishonour. And Stoneman’s black protégé, Silas Lynch, menaces Elsie Stoneman. The staging and editing used by Griffith generates a sense of violation. In addition, Mae Marsh demonstrates a more melodramatic acting style than other leading white characters, and her death becomes an orgy of hysteria. This is cemented in melodramatic fashion as ‘the little colonel’ cradles the dying body of his ‘little sister’.

There follows a night-time scene of the trial of Gus. Then the Clan leader holds aloft the

‘flag that bears the red stain of a Southern woman’

and the call goes out for a ride to save the South. These final three reels of the film prepare and then launch a bravura intercutting of the Clan riding thunderously to rescue Elsie from ‘ a fate worse than death’; white townspeople harassed and victimised by black riff-raff; and, a besieged cabin where both Southerners and Northerners are fending off crazed black soldiers. The cabin suggests an image of a reconstructed ‘American family’ as Union veterans, with a young daughter, offer shelter to the Camerons, who are accompanied by Phil Stoneman, now in opposition to his father. They ‘defend their Aryan birth right’. Predictably all are saved and the black soldiery is put to flight. This victory and the renewed union between North and South are cemented by the marriages of Ben and Elsie, Margaret and Phil. The film ends with a rhetorical flourish to anti-war sentiment and Christian piety rather at odds with the bloodthirsty actions of the Clan.

Stylistically the film uses the form familiar from Griffith’s Biograph work. The intertitles tend to explain the action, often prompting the audience prior to the scenes in question. There are only occasional camera movements, such as pans across the battle action and one reverse track during the final conflict. Exciting motion, such as the ride of the Clan, adheres to the style of early film, with the camera almost frontal to the movement. The most sophisticated aspects are in the editing and the use of masks and superimposition.

Griffith’s editing of the final reels – which depict, in quick succession, the Clan, the distraught Elsie, the panicking townsfolk and the besieged cabin – generates excitement and dynamism. This was amplified at the premiere as an orchestra filled the theatre with Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. Elsewhere Griffith uses similar techniques to dramatise the death of Little Sister and the heroic actions of Colonel Ben Cameron. In the sequence in which Elsie flees from Gus, intercut with the Colonel’s search for her, Griffith alternates mid-shots of the characters, iris style close-ups showing their emotional state, and long-shots that place the characters in the landscape of trees and rocks. Editing is also used to reinforce the stereotypes of the black characters: early in the film cutting to their simple frolicking dances and later to their more menacing drunkenness and violence.

Griffith brings a particularly powerful set of techniques to the staging of melodramatic moments. As in his earlier films he makes good use of natural scenery and of well designed interiors. The representation of the Cameron family is enhanced by the way characters are sited in domestic settings and against natural landscape. As the narrative develops, Griffith emphasises emotion through the use of mise-en-scène. The scene of Ben returning to his home in the aftermath of war is very powerful. He walks along the deserted street, to the dilapidated house, with the strains of ‘There’s no place like home’ played in the original music score. Little Sister runs out to greet him and leads him inside. As they cross the door frame a second arm appears and pulls him inside, presumably the arm of his mother. The flight of Little Sister and the search of the Colonel for her take place among trees and rocks, and there is a powerful sense of wilderness. Gus (the black assailant) is given a masked shot in close-up in which his face is framed menacing by hanging branches.

Louise B. Mayer’s fortune, due in part to the Box Office success of the film, became the basis for the Hollywood major studio, M-G-M, and a lot of the profits of the film went into the development of Hollywood businesses. The seminal influence of The Birth of a Nation on Hollywood can be traced in many ways. As with the example of Mayer, the economic success fed into the development of the Hollywood industry and majors, which remain to this day. In both the form of its narrative and in its style Griffith’s film had a powerful impact on contemporary and subsequent film-makers. But unfortunately the value system embedded in the film also remains potent in Hollywood. The stereotypes of both black people and the South carried on in Hollywood for decades, and we are not entirely free of them even today.

David W. Griffith Corp. 12 reels (11,700 feet, screened at 16 fps running time 190 minutes).

Directed by D. W. Griffith. Writers D. W. Griffith and Frank Woods.

Based on two novels, The Leopard’s Spots and The Clansman, and a stage play, The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon. Filming took place between July and November 1914 and the film was premiered in February 1915. Originally it was released as The Clansman and then re-titled as The Birth of a Nation. The film cost around $110,000 dollars, though there was also an expensive marketing campaign with intensive publicity, attractions like the specially prepared musical accompaniment and extended road-show screenings.

The film starred Griffith regulars Henry B. Walthall and Lillian Gish, with Robert Harron, Miriam Cooper and relative newcomer Mae Marsh. Black characters were white actors in ‘black-face’, though there were also genuine black people among the extras.

NB – this is a shorter version of the discussion of the film in ‘Studying Early and Silent Cinema’.

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