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The landmark film that perpetuated racial prejudice

 

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Unpleasant myths: The Birth of a Nation by DW Griffith used white actors in blackface

Unpleasant myths: The Birth of a Nation by DW Griffith used white actors in blackface

DW Griffith

DW Griffith

The promotional poster for The Birth of a Nation

The promotional poster for The Birth of a Nation

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Unpleasant myths: The Birth of a Nation by DW Griffith used white actors in blackface

If DW Griffith had lived in these condemnatory times, he probably would have been cancelled. His silent epic, The Birth of a Nation was released 105 years ago today, and there's no doubting the huge impact his film had on cinema's development. In it, Griffith radically expanded the language of cinema by experimenting with jump cuts, establishing shots, close-ups and screen fades.

He told his tale of two families struggling to survive in the US South after the Civil War with incredible skill and fluency, and his film would be studied avidly decades later by directors like John Ford and Orson Welles as they sought to expand cinema's language themselves. A huge achievement then, but there's a problem.

Griffith's film, which was inspired by a novel called The Clansman, portrayed the old South as a put-upon victim, the biggest casualty of the Civil War in the 1860s. After magnificently staging one of that conflict's key battles, Griffith depicted the Reconstruction era as a chaotic, violent time in which the now oppressed Southern whites were beset by carpetbaggers and vindictive northern politicians intent on punishing them by putting blacks in positions of power.

The blacks themselves, now former slaves, are seen running riot and looking for white women to rape. And in one of The Birth of a Nation's most notorious scenes, newly elected black politicians overrun the South Carolina state legislature and sit around smiling idiotically, swigging whiskey, eating fried chicken and putting their bare feet up on the desks.

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DW Griffith

DW Griffith

The South was going to hell in a handcart, and needed a white Christian saviour: enter the newly formed Ku Klux Klan, carrying torches, mounted on horses and sporting their pointy white hoods as they bring death and vengeance to the usurping underclass.

When the Klan appeared, contemporary audiences cheered, and The Birth of a Nation ended with intermarriages between a family of Northern abolitionists and Southern Secessionists that symbolised the healing of America's white Christian order. Normal service had been resumed.

Even at the time, Griffith's depiction of African-Americans was seen as problematic. Played by white actors in blackface, they were portrayed as savage, stupid, debauched and morally degenerate, an ignorant underclass that would run amok unless someone stopped them. The film's opening led to protests outside cinemas, led mainly by a Boston newspaper man, William Monroe Trotter, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Booker T Washington denounced the film as retrograde and wildly inaccurate, but Griffith, whose father 'Roaring Jake' Griffith had fought in the Confederate Army, was unrepentant. The director (incredibly) defended his film's historical veracity, and in a letter to the New York Globe claimed that the NAACP hated Birth of a Nation because the movie explicitly opposed interracial marriage.

All this fuss only attracted more attention to the film, which received encouragement from high places. President Woodrow Wilson, a southerner and tacit supporter of racial segregation, permitted a special screening of Birth of a Nation at the White House, after which he declared that Griffith was "writing history with lightning". All protests were swept aside, and Griffith's epic became a massive box office hit, the Titanic of its day.

So what, you might say. It's just a film, times and attitudes have changed, and we can now safely laugh at Birth of a Nation. Well, yes and no, because Griffith's film would exert a powerful influence in American life for many decades after its release, perpetuating some very unpleasant myths. And it's a cultural artefact with a great deal to tell us about why America has found it so hard to overcome racial discord.

Many of the Americans who went to see it in 1915 would have been recent immigrants, with a slender grasp of their newly adopted country's history. Birth of a Nation offered a handy summary, together with a vivid justification for racial prejudice. And in the South, where Jim Crow laws now enforced segregation and kept blacks out of the best neighbourhoods, schools and jobs, Griffith's film went down a storm.

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The promotional poster for The Birth of a Nation

The promotional poster for The Birth of a Nation

Within months of its release, and as a direct consequence, the Ku Klux Klan was reformed: this secret society with its crackpot Aryan 'Christian' ideals would commit dreadful atrocities across the Southern states during the 20th century as it frantically defended the cherished notion of white supremacy. And until the early 1970s, Birth of a Nation would be shown at Klan meetings as a recruiting tool.

The fact that black characters in Griffith's film were played by white actors is not insignificant. Firstly, it pointed to a kind of segregation within the burgeoning film industry itself, which could hardly expect white stars like Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh to share a stage with black actors. Secondly, blackface was an insidious practice, which licensed white actors to gurn and widen their eyes idiotically as they attempted to embody a 'typical' black person. The results were rarely flattering.

Walter Long, a distinguished white actor who tended to play villains, was cast in Birth of a Nation as Gus, a black soldier who seems overly keen on white women. When he makes advances to Flora Cameron (Mae Marsh), a virginal white female, she runs away and then throws herself off a cliff rather than submit to Gus. Another cherished Southern myth cemented.

The Birth of a Nation did not invent the Jim Crow laws, but one could argue that the film's compelling distortion of Southern US history did play a part in perpetuating them. And for many African-Americans, slavery never really ended: they continued to lead segregated, second-class lives, whether toiling in cotton fields or in menial servitude, barred from advancement, often denied the franchise.

Those who tried to escape this cycle of disadvantage by moving north and west to the big cities in the 1930s, 40s and 50s faced challenges of a different kind. Herded into the poorest parts of Chicago, Detroit, Washington and New York, they became trapped in ghettoes plagued by poverty, drugs and crime. And as postwar prosperity gripped America, all boats were raised but one. The worst thing to be in the US, it seemed, was an African-American.

In his excellent book, How the Irish Became White, Noel Ignatiev explained how the wave of Irish immigrants who arrived in the US after the Famine distinguished themselves from the black underclass with whom they had sometimes intermarried by becoming racist themselves. When the Italians arrived, they did the same. In fact whoever turned up, African-Americans seemed destined to always remain stuck at the bottom of the social pile.

Why? Because for many Americans, it was easier to see black people as a kind of inferior caste than to intellectually acknowledge the shame of slavery, the slave economy and the ugly two-tier society that had succeeded it. Slavery, segregation and endemic racism flew in the face of supposed US values, and made a mockery of American exceptionalism. Birth of a Nation presents these malignant attitudes in all their squalor, and in a sense they've never really gone away.

Look at the rise of crypto-fascist groups in the US of late, and how easy it's been for Donald Trump to stir up racial tensions. Black Americans are still many times more likely to be stopped by police, and shot by them, than any other racial group, and their representation in the penal system is hugely disproportionate.

Griffith's film, then, speaks to something deep and dark within the American psyche: it embodies ingrained attitudes and allows you to look at them. It has much to teach us in terms of history, and also has a central role in the development of cinema. So it should not be ignored, it should be watched - with dismay.

Indo Review