On the Syllabus: 'Birth of a Nation'

Last weekend, while I was in bed with a bad cold, I spent three and a half hours watching the 1915 silent film Birth of a Nation for my seminar on collective memory. So rather than something related to my thesis, this installment of "on the syllabus" brings you some thoughts on this landmark feature film and its infamous interpretation of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.

First up, here's the original 1915 trailer.

The fabulous Internet Archive has the entire feature available for streaming and download as part of its Feature Films collection (free of charge since the film is now in the public domain). For a short biography of D.W. Griffith, the director, see PBS's American Masters profile.

There is a LOT going on in this movie, and I don't have time to muse about all of it here in this one post. At the same time, it's the amount of stuff going on in the film that I was most struck by on my first viewing, so I'm going to try and talk a little bit about that without talking a LOT about that fact (if that makes any sense outside of my own head).

The story follows two families, one Northern and one Southern, both white. The first act begins just prior to the outbreak of the war and ends with the assassination of Linooln, which is depicted as a great tragedy for Southern postwar recovery. The second act tells a story of postwar "degredation and ruin" of a people (white Southerners) at the hands of black and mixed-race activists who bring black voters to the polls and disenfranchise white voters. In response to this "anarchy of black rule," a group of white men form the Ku Klux Klan in order to "save the south" and protect their "Aryan birthright."

What was interesting to me, considering the film as a whole, was how tightly the depictions of race, gender, economic status, and regional identity were woven together in order to tell a story of Southern loss and redemption. While to our twenty-first century eyes the depictions of African-Americans are appalling, I think it's important not to let the obvious wrongness of the Nation version of history preclude a more nuanced understanding of how race interacts with the other groups Griffith's characters belong to. For example, slaves are clearly depicted as black, and freed slaves as by and large dangerous and disorderly -- yet Southern blacks chastise Northern blacks and 'mulattos' for putting on "northern airs." The regional differences in some cases trumping (or complicating) racial identities.

The sexual pairings of the story are similarly complicated by race and regional difference. White (obviously hetero) marriage is used throughout the story to symbolize white solidarity across regional lines, juxtaposed with the horror of miscegenation (strictly black men threatening white women with marriage proposals). In both cases, heterosexual marriage is seen as the bulwark of nationhood: the villain of the piece, a 'mulatto' named Silas Lynch, "drunk with wine and power" attempts to set up a black kingdom with himself as queen and a young white woman as his queen; the Ku Klux Klansmen eventually marry eachothers' sisters and (literally) head off into the sunset for a seaside honeymoon in a united (white) American nation.

(On a somewhat related note: The two youngest sons of the families (north and south) die in each others' arms on the battlefield, in a pose reminescent of two post-coital lovers sleeping. And thus the 1910s version of a thousand slash fic stories were born!)

We're discussing the film in class this afternoon, and I'm definitely interested to see what others got out of it.

1 comment:

  1. I've been meaning to watch this for years...with a free link, I may actually do it!