Monday, July 6, 2009

You Don't Know Jack... about 'Birth of A Nation' (1915)

What is significant about the film Birth of a Nation?
Before I finished it about 30 minutes ago, all I knew about the film was, "Well, it's totally racist, right?"
Well, yes, but that's not all. Apparently this movie was one of the most important cultural artifacts from the 20th century.
Check this out:
  • It was the first successful full-length feature film ever (3 hours 10 minutes!)
  • It did more to influence modern American thinking on the post-Civil War Reformation than practically anything else
  • It single-handedly reinvigorated the Klu Klux Klan nationwide, and introduced the "White Sheet" garb and the burning crosses. Klansman paraded around on horses in major U.S. cities upon its premiere
  • It is actually a noteworthy film from a technical standpoint - it had complex and epic war battles, built an impressive simulacrum of Ford's Theatre for Lincoln's... um.... "early retirement," and pioneered techniques like the jump-cut and the facial close-up
  • It was amazingly successful, earning the equivalent of $200 million today.
All that aside, it's an interesting movie to watch. It's black and white and silent, with a fairly funny musical score comprising about 4 or 5 piano pieces looped over and over again (including the "Flight of the Valkyries" when the KKK save some white family from the blacks - hooray for whitey!). The acting is sort of over-dramatic and overly expressive, but that was the style for the pre-talkies. The sets and costumes are excellent. It is obviously a very well-made movie and not a "throw this together real fast" propaganda film.

I was shocked, I admit, to see white men in black face playing the important black roles, and seeing "regular" blacks to represent the bit parts. Black face is something so old and so mocked that your brain almost skips a beat when you're exposed to it. Then again, the Jazz Singer used black face in 1927.

The movie is split into two parts. Part 1 is an interesting look at pre-civil war South and the horrible toll the war took on the U.S. Seen by itself, this film is barely controversial at all. It's part II that's based upon a book called the Clansman, and that's where the horseshit hits the waterwheel. Here, the classic anti-black propaganda is introduced:

1. The fear of white women of being raped by blacks
2. The lawnessness and animalistic nature of freed blacks.

In the film, for example, the "good" black housekeeper and some other loyalists are protective of their white employers, as if to say, "No, there's nothing wrong with black people in and of themselves... just as long as they are subservient and know their place in society." A pretty thin rationale, there.

Most of the film seems pretty unbelievable in terms of propaganda, especially for 1915 when the Civil War was only as far gone as WWII is today.

It can, however, use ignorance against you. I know very little about the period of Reconstruction / Reformation or what happened in the south after the Civil War ended. I recall reading that blacks actually received a huge boost in political power for a period of decades, before laws in the early 20th century rolled them back. Birth of Nation focuses on this period, depicting black freedom as anarchy. Blacks are uncivilized and cruel animals who make a mockery of the court and pervert justice. The whites, then, are nobly "rescuing" the south from the "Black Overlords" (!). If I didn't know better, I might think, "Hey, maybe this did really happen!"

Pretty clever.


Zeyev said...

For those of us brought up in the South, the stench of the movie and other efforts of its ilk pervaded everyday life in the 1950's - and possibly still do. Desegregation was so vilified that Montgomery closed its public parks rather than suffer the indignity of it. "Dixie" was played instead of the National Anthem. And we were taught that slavery had been acceptable. All because of one movie? Hardly. But it certainly contributed to the institutionalization of racism.

George said...

I recommend the chapter in Howard Zinn's Peoples history of the United States about the Civil war and then Reconstruction.