Birth of a Nation, the gestation of American mass media and on-screen racism

Birth of a Nation, the gestation of American mass media and on-screen racism

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D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is an explicitly racist film which portrayed the need for white control. Aided by his innovative film techniques, Griffith used specifically laid out screenshots, plot, and blackface to illustrate his view that white people needed to care for lazy and animal-like blacks.

The movie created uproar within the black community when it was released in 1915 due to its virulent racist message. The Birth of a Nation marked the beginning of the black community’s move to create film representations of themselves with the production of early black-led movies, including the direct response to The Birth of a Nation, called The Birth of a Race (1918). The Birth of a Nation, which was the birth of mass entertainment, created a film culture of racism, and, as a response to this racism, a need for blacks to create their own film representations of themselves.

In the film, pre-war blacks are happy, docile, and hardworking. The characters of Mammy and the other household workers called “The Faithful Souls,” or slaves who continue to cheer for the Confederate army throughout the war, are the epitome of these happily controlled blacks.

In contrast, post-war blacks are portrayed as lusty and disorderly. Griffith’s illustrates this with the scenes of black men elected to Congress who put their feet up on the table and express other child-like behavior to illustrate their inability to govern themselves.

In the movie, ungoverned blacks are dangerous blacks. The character of Gus (played by white actor Walter Long), whose portrayal was so controversial that he was the first and last black aggressor of whites until the Blaxploitation films of the ‘60s and ‘70s, had animal urges to chase “Little Sister” (Mae Marsh) in order to rape her. She leaped off a cliff to her death in order to escape his attack.

Griffith portrays the need for white control over black people by only casting white actors in blackface to portray the significant black characters. Griffith, a white supremacist, seemed to believe that blackface should be performed by white actors in blackface so black people were not even given the opportunity to portray themselves accurately in any form of entertainment. The black actors in the film were mostly in mobs or had small bit parts created in the tradition of blackface and black minstrelsy, both entertainment genres created and perpetuated by whites.

The negative portrayal of blacks in The Birth of a Nation and Birth’s huge success created controversy in the black community. The Birth of Nation grossed an estimated fifty million dollars in its first release and, with ticket prices around two dollars; had an estimated twenty million viewers.

Black organizations reacted negatively to this huge success. The nascent National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) said Birth of a Nation was “a flagrant incitement to racial antagonism.” Around one thousand people, mostly black, went to the Governor of Massachusetts in Boston and demanded the movie be banned. Black organizations delivered a petition with six thousand signatures asking Boston’s Mayor Curley for the film to be banned.

The film itself and the black community’s huge uprising against it seemed to be one of the catalysts for the creation of early black-led movies, such as The Birth of a Race, which presented a more positive screen portrayal of blacks. Attempts by W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington were made to develop a script with Universal Pictures which positively portrayed black people. After Washington’s death, his apprentice Emmett J. Scott was signed to the Advance Motion Picture Company of Chicago to create a “colored man’s viewpoint” on film. Neither film was ever produced.  

In 1918, however, a successful attempt, entitled The Birth of a Race was released. The film, which drew support from both white and black investors, was first dropped by many film companies due of lack of funding. Some significant inclusive elements of the film are its portrayal of many different nationalities listening to Jesus and putting black and white men on a level playing field as farmers and soldiers. The Birth of a Race was a critical flop and was largely panned even by the black community. This movie, however, was significant as one of the first films created by blacks and their white supporters to counter the tradition of racism on film.  

Sources and further reading:

Butters, Gerald R. Black Manhood on the Silent Screen. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2002.

 

Carter, Everett. “Cultural History Written with Lightning: The Significance of the Birth of a Nation.” American Quarterly. Autumn 1960: Vol. 12, No.3.

 

Clooney, Nick. The Movies that Changed Us. New York: Atria Books, 2002.

 

Epp, Michael H. “Raising Minstrelsy: Humour, Satire and the Stereotype in The Birth of a Nation and Bamboozled.” Canadian Review of American Studies. 2003: Vol. 33, no. 1.

 

Wallace, Michele Faith. “The Good Lynching and ‘The Birth of a Nation’: Discourses and Aesthetics of Jim Crow.” Cinema Journal. Autumn 2003: Vol 43, No. 1.