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American Movie: The Birth of a Nation (1915)

The history of the development of cinema stretches back a few decades before the end of the 1800s. Movies have been telling stories for over a century. The world’s first feature-length film debuted in 1906. Nevertheless, the story of American movies effectively begins in 1915 with the release of The Birth of a Nation. With a run-time of three hours, it was nearly two hours longer than any other motion picture up to that point. It’s cost of $110,000 made it the most expensive movie ever made. The investment paid off, setting the bar for dreams of enormous box office receipts. The Birth of a Nation remained the highest-grossing film for the next 22 years.

Its director, D.W. Griffith, was the man who discovered Hollywood, and his films would help to make it the movie capital of the world. Of course, it helped that Hollywood boasted excellent weather for early filming (which required a great deal of natural light), and was located far from New York City and the avaricious grasp of Thomas Edison’s patent on all things film-related. In service of his epic vision, Griffith assembled an awe-inspiring array of cinematic techniques (both technical and narrative) that essentially wrote the book on the language of film. The movie starred Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman and Mae Marsh as Flora Cameron, both of whom (but especially Gish) would become major American movie stars.

The result was enormously influential, and not just in inspiring imitators and ensuring that the feature film industry would be a permanent fixture in this country. The Birth of a Nation was the first film to be shown in the White House, with a special screening held for then-president Woodrow Wilson (whose History of the American People was quoted extensively in the film as a source). The film drew widespread protests (and, later, cinematic responses) from the African American community, most notably the newly-formed NAACP. It also inspired a sudden revival of the Ku Klux Klan, which swelled enormously in membership for over a decade until the craze peaked in the mid-1920s.

This film is obviously impossible to ignore from the standpoint of film history, but equally difficult for a modern viewer to watch objectively. The plot (which is, itself, difficult to summarize without resorting to racially-charged statements and terminology) documents the intertwined fortunes of two American families (The Camerons, a Southern family, and the Stonemans, a Northern family) against the backdrop of the Civil War and the rise of the original KKK during Reconstruction. It is based on a novel (and successful stage play) called The Clansman, second in a loose trilogy by Thomas F. Dixon, Jr.

The story is laid out in two acts. First, a friendship forms between the two Stoneman brothers and the three Cameron brothers, and the eldest in each family falls in love with the eldest sister of the other. The Stoneman boys visit the Camerons in the South, where life is happy and simple, but there is trouble on the horizon. Austin Stoneman, a congressman, is a radical Republican and an abolitionist who wants to remove the sovereignty of the Southern states and place the white people under the heels of their black slaves. Before long, the Southern states secede and the Civil War begins. The Stoneman and Cameron boys join the war on opposite sides, and the younger brothers are killed, leaving Phil Stoneman and Ben”The Little Colonel” Cameron alive.

Despite putting up a brave fight in the name of the Noble Cause, the Confederacy is forced to concede defeat. Shortly after this, John Wilkes Booth assassinates Abraham Lincoln at a play attended by Phil and Elsie Stoneman. Without Lincoln’s strong leadership and hopes for peacefully reintegrating the South into the country, Stoneman and his cronies finally have their opportunity to act. Stoneman himself visits the Cameron’s state, and puts an evil mulatto named Silas Lynch in charge of the government. Army units composed entirely of black men terrorize the white population and the blacks who remain loyal to them. Lynch also manages to disenfranchise white voters and fills the state legislature with black men.

Meanwhile, Ben Cameron (who is cultivating a budding romance with Elsie Stoneman) is inspired to create the KKK, an “invisible empire” of anonymous white Southern men who carry out acts of terrorism and guerrilla warfare in the name of regaining control of their government and of the black population. Lynch and Austin Stoneman are furious at this turn of events, and a war of attrition begins. Matters come to a head when Gus, a bestial black soldier, decides that he wants to marry young Flora Cameron. He approaches her in an isolated place and chases her out onto a cliff, where she leaps to her death rather than suffer the unthinkable shame and indignity of rape or forced marriage. Ben finds her just before she dies and she reveals what happened. The KKK lynch Gus.

In the film’s intense climax, Lynch arrests the old patriarch of the Cameron clan, but he is rescued by his loyal black servants and he and the women of the family escape with Phil Stoneman to an isolated cabin occupied by two Yankee veterans. A savage group of black militia lays siege to the cabin. Back in town, the black population is running completely wild and Elsie has gone to Lynch to appeal to him on old Mr. Cameron’s behalf. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know that Lynch is planning to marry her, and she becomes his captive. When her father arrives and hears that Lynch wants to marry a white woman, he is initially pleased, until he discovers which white woman (thus revealing his hypocrisy). Meanwhile, Ben rallies the Klan in its entirety, and they charge into the town in force to put down the black uprising and rescue Elsie. Word comes of the siege in the cabin, and they ride out once more, arriving just in time to save the rest of the Cameron family.

There is a double wedding, as Ben Cameron marries Elsie Stoneman and Phil Stoneman marries Margaret Cameron. In a final coda, the film looks ahead to a hoped for time when the violent spirit of War shall be banished and replaced by everlasting peace, symbolized by a Christ-like figure who appears on the screen. The message of the film is crystal clear: The white race should live in peace, like the brothers they are, united against what it sees as the real threat, that is the racially-inferior.

Made only 50 years after the end of the Civil War, The Birth of a Nation repeatedly claims an intensive level of historical accuracy and attention to detail in terms of the larger story it tells. This is particularly true of the Civil War segment of the movie, which relied a great deal on primary sources such as photographs to reproduce entire battles as accurately as possible. However, later on, some of the so-called “historical” scenes from Reconstruction are actually based on sources such as political cartoons. As with virtually all historical films, this one ends up telling us much more about the time in which it was filmed than it does about the time it is pretending to film.

African Americans, as they appear in The Birth of a Nation, are beyond even the dismissive flatness of the racial stereotype. They are barely human, capable only of either dog-like loyalty and admiration for their white masters, or removed from the checks of discipline and strong authority, of a wolf-like savagery that mindlessly devours and destroys. They are not even permitted the dignity of a moral commitment to either good or evil. Good is the exclusive province of enlightened whites, while the ultimate face of evil is that of the person of mixed race (or “mulatto”). The black people are simply pawns, either of the wise or of the devious.

After their arrival on American soil is said, at the beginning of the movie, to have planted “the first seeds of disunion,” they are shown happily picking cotton and dancing joyously for the entertainment of visitors to their quarters. Later on, the removal of an appropriate guiding authority allows them to run wild, but their actions are purposeless and ignorant. In the legislative session, they take off their shoes and prop their feet up on their desks, or stand and pontificate with their mouths full while wildly waving pieces of fried chicken in the air. At the heart of the black threat (or, rather, of the insecurity felt by the white filmmakers) is a desire to possess white women. It is the realization of this threat that forms the film’s emotional center, and it’s climax is devoted to the defeat of that threat.

Naturally, the major black roles are filled, not by actual African Americans, but by whites in blackface. This is true of the main house servants, Austin Stoneman’s mulatto housekeeper, Silas Lynch and Gus, among others. It has been suggested that white actors in blackface were used for scenes where white women were present, however this is not the case. It is much more likely that black actors would have refused to perform the roles once they became aware of the nature of the scenes, or that the filmmakers felt black actors would be unable to perform the necessary parts with the same skill and range that a white actor would be able to muster.

In terms of the historical narrative, the slanted perspective depicted in The Birth of a Nation may have originated in the South, but it represented the dominant view of events held in the United States for several decades after the end of Reconstruction. It is a truly mythical story arc which follows the Southern people through a historical cycle of hardship. The story begins in a state of blissful utopia in an idealized vision of antebellum paradise, promoted by the nostalgic reminiscences of the older generation and an entire genre of maudlin historical fiction. Next came the South’s noble struggle in defense of their cherished Lost Cause.

This is followed by a fall from grace and the dark days of abuse provoked by the Radical Republicans in Congress and perpetrated by the three bogeymen of Reconstruction: opportunistic “carpetbaggers” from the North, traitorous “scalawags” from the South, and the vile black “freedmen.” Finally, events come full circle and the South achieves redemption through the heroic efforts of the Ku Klux Klan, which throw off the oppression of the Reconstruction governments and restore the balance with Jim Crow segregation laws and the disenfranchisement of black voters.

This was part of the story of American history as many people saw it at the time when The Birth of a Nation was made, and each element of the cycle is clearly present in the story. Of course, many aspects of the story, both as presented historically and within the film itself, are patently ridiculous. The picture of Reconstruction that was painted in the decades immediately after it ended, for instance, were vastly overblown. There are no real indications that any sort of organized, widespread system of oppression and abuse of the white population by the government and the black population ever took place.

However, it would be a mistake to dismiss the intense power that this mythical story possesses to fire the imaginations of viewers, particularly in the hands of a skilled storyteller like Griffith. It was even reported after the White House screening that President Wilson had said that the movie was “like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Although he later denied both the statement and his approval of the movie, there is no doubt that the majority of the film’s audience did feel this way. It is impossible to deny that the movie tells an entertaining story in a relentlessly compelling way. This is clear not only from its initial reception (with the astronomical box office returns and the KKK revival), but from the fact that it can still hold the attention and fire the emotions (though in a different way) of viewers over 90 years after it was made.

It is a strong, visceral testament, from the dawn of the feature film, to both the power and danger of cinema as a medium of communication and entertainment. A well-made movie will resonate with audiences, sometimes capturing their hearts and minds, either for good or for evil, but always writing its story with lightning across the silver screen and into the memories of its audiences, where it is likely to remain . . . forever.

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~ by Jared on April 25, 2008.

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