D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation: Analysis
D. W. Griffith was raised on a Kentucky farm in Crestwood, with his father, his mother, and sister. His father was a colonel in the Confederate Army, and served Kentucky as a state legislator. His family raised him Methodist, and his sister did his schooling in a one-room schoolhouse. At the age of 10, his father died and his mother left the farm to move to Louisville, Kentucky. They struggled with poverty after that, and he eventually got into acting and filmmaking. He started off as an actor when his first screenplay was rejected. However, he started working with a production company called Biograph, and soon became the main director.
However, his intentions and budget did not match up with Biograph’s ideas and motives, so he left with his clan of actors and formed a studio by the name of Reliance- Majestic Studios under the Mutual Film Corporation. When he made The Clansman, it became the first blockbuster. It was untraditionally long in airtime, and had great box office sales. However, there was controversy over the themes and romanticism of the Ku Klux Klan, and race relations during the Civil War and Reconstruction. From a technical side, this movie was successful, and many film historians conclude it was one of the irst feature length films.
In Birth of a Nation, it reinforces the notion that slavery was a social and gentle experience for the slaves in many instances throughout the film. When there was a scene with the slaves, they were depicted dancing, singing, and being Jubilant. Even when Silas Lynch, the mulatto governor of the North, tells slaves to stop working, they put up a fght and do not want to stop. Then, there are many more cutbacks to slaves dancing around outside, and having a good time throughout parts of the film. This depiction enforces the Dunning School of History very closely for many reasons.
It seems as though Griffith represented a lot of the ideals present in the school of thought in this movie. He showed that the South was suffering under the Union army, and did not present a real cause to the war. Basically, the South was already suffering with the start of the film, and was painted to feel sorry for. The Cameron family got poorer at the start of the war, while the Stoneman family in the North remained wealthy. In the movie, it depicts the Union army, with freed slaves, as a disaster, with irrationally hateful attitudes towards the South.
The abolitionists, arpetbaggers, and Radical Republicans are the antagonists in the film, and Justify the forming of the vigilante group, the Ku Klux Klan. He depicted the Ku Klux Klan restoring order to the Post-war South in reaction to the ‘misrule’ of their country. The freed slaves and Union army soldiers are portrayed as unnecessarily violent and sex crazed. This represents the Dunnings school notion that the former slaves will never be fully assimilated into the society because of their true’ nature that disrupts the natural order of their society.
Moving on, the five character types Donald Bogle talks about are maintained in his film. First, I’d like to mention the Cameron family maid named Mammy. An obvious portrayal of the mammy included darker skin, which is supposed to de sex the character, as well as a round body shape that is supposed to come off as motherly, which turtner takes away trom ner sexuality. In the tilm, sne is viewed as constantly loyal to the Cameron’s, in the face of the Union soldiers and people from up North. When the Stoneman’s butler comes into town, she is antagonistic towards him with her attitude.
She denies the bags he tries to hand off to her, and eventually sserts her superiority in her house by kicking him into the back room. When he tries to express his sexuality towards her, she brushes him off, which further enforces the idea that the free blacks are over sexualized. The biggest sense of loyalty from Mammy we see is when she tries to protect her master from union soldiers arresting him for being in the Ku Klux Klan. Gus, the Union Solider, seems to be best associated with brute and coon tendencies, which is characterized by his sexuality towards Flora.
The union soldiers in general represent the brutal buck character type because they are seen as violent, ncontrollable and sexualized in the film. Gus, also has coon tendencies, however, in the way his character expresses himself. His eyes are very big and full of expression, and seem to be laughed at a lot. He is used as comic relief in addition to his role as an instigator to the Ku Klux Klan. When he comes onto Flora, he is overly sexual and aggressive towards her. He seems to be out of control as soon as the interaction starts, and ends with a chasing scene through the forest.
This goes along with the Moonlight and Magnolia theme that white women are the epitome of beauty, and how frail and delicate they seem. Silas Lynch is also depicted as overly aggressive in his pursuit and proposal to Elsie Stoneman. This represents the fear of miscegenation, as well as rape. The skewed view promotes the domination of women through portrayals of white women and black soldiers. The Stoneman housekeeper, Lydia, is portrayed as a mistress mulatto character. She is seen flirting with her master, and is one of the few character types to have a sexuality.
Also, she is seen with the most humane depiction of anguish throughout the film. This indicates there might have been miscegenation, which was risky at the time because of the racial ensions in the south. To soften the blow to the white audiences in the South, she was portrayed with an antagonistic, even immature, persona towards the Stoneman family, and played a small role in the movie overall. She is also painted to be a schemer, and her light skin is an indicator of her sexuality, that contrasts the skin tone and servility of the mammy.
The Tom represented in this film seems to be more of a plural, background character. In both houses, there seems to be a gentile, loyal, butler that are easily manageable, and used to enforce the idea that slavery is right. All the character types work to that effect, but what is interesting here is that the Tom and Coons seems to fade into the background, and are used as placeholders. The Stoneman family butler seems to be the most prevalent Tom character in the movie, and is not seen talking much in the film, Just in the background to enforce the idea of servants in the house to represent wealth.
Before going on, more Moonlight and Magnolia themes are present in the film, which also coincides with the Dunning school of history. The southerners were viewed as heroic underdogs, even though they started the war. The cause of the war is conveniently left out; The South seceding from the Union, the split in Congress about slavery in new territories, and the attack on Fort Sumpter by the Conferederate army. Even Lincoln’s portrayal was skewed, as he was seen a saintly character in favor of slavery.
His assassination was dramatized, and marked the start ot Reconstruction. Silas Lynch was elected Lieutenant Governor, and the newly elected, mostly black legislature was depicted as cheats and lazy. The blacks were stuffing the ballot box while the Southern whites were turned away. The scene in the courtroom showed the legislature as rresponsible, more into drinking alcohol and roughhousing than being responsible. This is an example of the belief that blacks will never be a fully functioning part of the Southern American society.
The Tom represented in this film seems to be more servants in the house to represent wealth. I believe that Griffith’s film should be regarded as slanderous, because the history presented is so offensively biased. It is like he painted the history to make up what he believed to be true. History is not as subjective as he makes it out to be. It is so far from the truth, and romanticizes the prising of a terrible group, the Ku Klux Klan. In no way should the actions of those hooded members be glorified.
What they did in history was appalling, to say the least, and void of compassion. No Justification will ever convince me otherwise. I found this film to be offensive, and full of lives; so much so, it seems like a fantasy world of Griffiths. All of his character portrayals were in defense of slavery. His movie Just helped to perpetuate terrible stereotypes today, and has done way more harm than good. I am glad we have come a long way since this film has come out, and that his iews do not coincide with the majority consensus about our society.
I wish it did not have such great success, because the impact it had on the film industry was detrimental on a moral level. The film had great box office success, but that Just represents how the South’s view on slavery needed to be addressed. Justifying slavery of another group of people is so wrong; where is the compassion? This film should not be regarded as a masterpiece, but a ‘slanderous anti-negro portrayal,” as Donald Bogle puts it. His legacy should be that of what not to do; and his views seen as void of reason or basis in reality.