The Birth of the Nation is the first black and white film screened at the White House that impressed all of its spectators. The core idea of the film remains topical even after a century has passed. Its context related to the issue of racism is still being discussed by the politicians and historians. The film represents the story of the country's genesis that significantly impacted the life of the U.S. citizens and race relations in the early 20th century. The work is based on the analysis of the picture and deep study of the hidden messages and specific scenes, which reflect the dominant racial ideology depicting black people as an illiterate and aggressive social group that cannot be mixed with the white intellectuals. The scenes described by the author supported the discriminative mood of the picture that effected the race relations in the early 20th century widening the gap between the rights of the black and white.
The Birth of a Nation as Anti-Black Propaganda
The film The Birth of a Nation was proposed to the audience in 1915. It simultaneously became one of the bottom lines in the history of the American cinema and racism. The film describes the life of the Northern and Southern white families during the Civil War, Reconstruction, and post-war period. The Birth of a Nation is a masterpiece of the silent era widely accepted as anti-black propaganda, but only that film was a historical epic about the fear of so-called "negro domination" in the Reconstruction period. The film not only reinforced the antebellum stereotypes of the white that were referred to the black but also significantly affected the race relations in the early 20th century. The historian Thomas Cripps characterized the movie as a significant development for the cinema industry and a problem for the black people that caused racism (Carter 348). The Birth of a Nation represents the events of Reconstruction and the Civil War in the light of the Southern whites' perception who rejected the social and political progress formed by the discharged African Americans. Cripps notices that the film is a nightmare of interracial brutality, rape, and castigation (249).
Aggravation of the Stereotypes
Stereotypes concerning the black existed before the film hit the screen, but the picture aggravated the negative attitude towards the African Americans. The Birth of a Nation represents the scenes which are reflected in the performance of the white or the black in the situations that have been deteriorating (100). The key four scenes of The Birth of a Nation include powerful artistic performance, distortion of the historical facts, and racism. The first major scene comprises of the series of intertitles, which introduce the Reconstruction part describing the rise of the Ku Klux Klan as a positive aspect that led to the release of the white South from the ravage of Negro (Carter 357). The second fundamental segment is related to the legislature in 1870, which concerned the newly elected black legislator who sat in the chair leering at the white woman in the visitor's gallery (Walker and Oliver 4). The third scene depicted the white children of South in the white bed sheets scanning several black children who played close by. These black children inspired the creation of the Klan's ugliest clothing. The fourth significant scene is connected with Klansmen who wore white sheets and dumped Gus's, Flora's killer's, body at Silas Lynch's door (Wallace 103). Despite the fact that the film reinforced the antebellum stereotypes of the Americans, it also negatively affected the attempts to support progressive images of the black people in the cinema.
The author describes the black as those who behave aggressively, grovel, and grimace, which also significantly aggravates the stereotypical way of thinking of the white. Griffith emphasized that skills and intellectual abilities of the black who acquired good positions did not correspond to a sufficient level. African American state juries, voters, and legislators are not depicted objectively in the film. For example, a black lawmaker from South Carolina is represented as a man without shoes drinking whiskey and eating chicken in the state legislature during the passage of the law that allowed the white and black to intermarry (Walker and Oliver 15). Moreover, the newly elected black officials displayed inappropriate behavior. For example, one member took the other member's shoe and put his feet on the desk. Such situation threatened the stability of white people and resulted in the formation of the Ku Klux Klan. This new union not only protected the white women from miscegenation but supported a new way of the American life (Wallace 93).
The author describes the black of the post-war periods as illiterate and uncivilized people. He notices that African Americans are not ready to lead responsible lives. However, a historian James Loewen wrote that in the real life the black of that period of time were modest and proud in their hearts of the people who were elected to the office. After Reconstruction the former Confederates managed to regain the local power in the South. Every southern and border state legally disenfranchised the vast majority of its African American citizens. A significant event at that time was passing the law which supported intermarriage contributing to the growth of the number of mulattos in the U.S. population. Consequently, the black whose skin was lighter could appear as the white. Mixing the black and white became a real nightmare for Griffith (Wallace 101). He considered the black to be former slaves who cannot be mixed with the working class of white people. The author was afraid that the racial impurity could lead to the cultural degeneration of the white. The author wished to convince the audience of the negativity of the idea using the characters of the mixed races, such as Silas and Lydia. The actions of both individuals showed immorality of the black race and the ingenuity of the white.
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Griffith also presents mulattos as the evil force. For example, the author created a character of unrestrained Gus, who abused the white lady of high intellectual level (Wallace 104). The full-blooded but renegade black committed a dreadful sexual crime, an attack on the little sister. The author compared the rape with a single spring of the tiger, the claws of which sank into the white throat. The description of Gus as a tiger and Stonemen's mistress as a leopard presented the audience with the last element of the "Plantation Illusion", the defense of the system on the basis of the inhumanity of the Negro, whose appearance reflected animal lust and ferocity (91). The author also reinforces his negative attitude towards the black by describing Lynch's attempts and desires to possess Elsie Stoneman and by illustrating an episode where the black carry the signs "Equal rights, equal marriage."
Negative Influence on the Race Relations
The broadcast of the film led to the massive protest organized by the NAACP, which demanded to delete the scenes where a white girl committed suicide to escape from the black pursuer and where a mulatto tried to force marriage upon the daughter of his white benefactor (355). The rebellious activists declared that the scenes significantly affected the race relations of the early 20th century because they encouraged the gap growth between the equal rights of the white and black. Americans did not want to accept the black as individuals similar in values and intellectual abilities and insisted on their segregation. Numerous historians asserted that the author depicted African Americans as "subhuman" with primitive sexuality and vicious bestiality (Walker and Oliver 7). A known historian, Hale, explained that the author projected the view of common racial identity and white supremacy over the myriad varieties of class, gender, and locality (10). He noticed that the first part, which describes the period before the war, represents a nostalgic mood of antebellum life of both southerners and northerners (12). During those times, the black contently worked on the field and enjoyed the two-hour breaks for lunch. Slaves and masters were represented as happy and successful collaborators. Every social group took an appropriate for its class position. After the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, the behavior of the black significantly changed, and after the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, their behavior became completely inadmissible (Wallace 97). Thus, the description of the black as a lower class significantly affected the perception of African Americans as an equal social group that deserves to live a full life with a wide range of opportunities, and it reinforced the prejudicial attitudes of the U.S. citizens towards the black.
The Birth of a Nation is not only a fictional description of Reconstruction but also a representation of the supremacy of the white who referred the black as to an inferior social group. Despite the fact that the film is a distinct form of racism representation, it remains a great example of the silent film, which so vividly portrays the racial discrimination that significantly influenced the creation of the prerogative attitude of Americans to the black. The author used various scenes to prove that blacks deserve only to be slaves because having more freedom causes them to lose control and harm white intelligent people. Such phenomenon forced Americans to view African Americans as an inferior social class prone to aggressive behavior and characterized by illiteracy.