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.
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!"