THE BIRTH OF A NATION. (1915) DIRECTED BY D.W. GRIFFITH. BASED ON THE WRITINGS OF THOMAS DIXON JR. STARRING LILLIAN GISH, HENRY WALTHALL, MIRIAM COOPER, MAE MARSH, RALPH LEWIS, GEORGE SIEGMANN, WALTER LONG, JOSEPH HENABERY AND RAOUL WALSH.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
I’d heard before I ever watched this film that it was possibly the most racist movie ever made, in its depiction of African-American people in America in the time of their Civil War. Having watched the film, I can definitely concur, lol.
Do you know what it reminds me of? A couple of summers ago, I watched a German anti-Semitic movie from the 1940s called JŰD SUSS, in which Jewish people were represented as scruffy bearded moneylenders with big hooked noses, sly dispositions and an insatiable greed for money.
THE BIRTH OF A NATION does pretty much the same to black people, and it glorifies that most racist of organisations, the Ku Klux Klan, an organisation that was birthed during this period right along with the titular nation.
There are even written disclaimers before the movie comes on that basically say, Oh, we’re not being racist or offensive to any one race, we’re just telling it like it happened back then. It’s the truth, so y’all can’t have a go at us for telling the truth. Humph.
Well, the film-makers can’t prevent us viewers who are living in these thankfully more enlightened times for having our own opinions either, so there. If we want to consider THE BIRTH OF A NATION the most racist thing before that wall to keep out ‘dem pesky Mexicans’ that Donald Trump promised to build during his election campaign, then we can. Can I get a ‘Harrumph…?’
The plot is so similar to that of GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), that other huge sweeping Civil War drama (from which I derived literally everything I know about the ‘Murican Civil War, lol), that it seems likely that Margaret Mitchell got at least some of her ideas about writing a Civil War epic from watching THE BIRTH OF A NATION.
GONE WITH THE WIND is a much glossier chocolate-boxy production, however, with the racism milder and more tastefully presented. It is the big stunning Hollywood depiction of the famous War, after all.
THE BIRTH OF A NATION, while beautifully shot and exquisitely presented, is much more warts-and-all in its depiction of the racism, or should I say the shockingly bad and thoroughly unsporting behaviour of the freed black slaves after the Civil War ended. Tut tut…
There’s only one use of the controversial ‘n’ word in the film, and that’s used by a black ‘Mammy’ to another black servant of whom she disapproves. The word ‘Aryan,’ which I thought had been coined by Hitler and which I didn’t realise was in use as far back as 1915, is used once, and in the exact context in which Hitler would have used it too.
There are two wealthy, privileged families, the Camerons and the Stonemans, in the film. Before the Civil War starts, the two families are the best of friends and travel back-and-forth frequently to visit each other.
Once the War begins, however, they find themselves on opposing sides. The Camerons are as ‘Southern’ as it gets, their whole demeanour and appearance simply screaming mint juleps on the lawn and pistols-at-dawn to get ‘satisfaction’ for a real or imagined slight. The Stonemans are on the side of the North.
The Cameron parents send out three sons out to fight for the glorious Cause. I think they thought it’d all be over by Christmas. I genuinely don’t think they expected to lose that war or that only one of their three sons would ever come home. Talk about a wake-up call.
The son that survives the war is Colonel Ben Cameron, known affectionately as ‘the Little Colonel.’ He’s been in love with Stoneman’s beautiful ringleted daughter Elsie since he first saw her portrait as a particularly charming miniature.
When she finally meets him after he’s been injured in the fighting, it’s love at first sight for her too. Which is awkward, as the several years of Reconstruction that happen after the war ends won’t really see any major reconciliation between the defeated South and the victorious North. Their families are basically still enemies, in other words. Capulets and Montagues, with the pair of star-crossed lovers in the middle.
Halfway through the movie, which by the way clocks in at a whopping three-and-a-quarter-hours long, a certain assassination of major historical importance takes place in a theatre, of all places.
It’s only when this happens that the film’s infamous racism starts kicking in. Prior to this, it was mainly a film about the Civil War, with some really well-done scenes of battle and fighting which are pretty much incredible for the time.
But once the man known as ‘the South’s best friend’ is out of the picture, the American political scene descends into a sort of chaotic free-for-all. The Southerners are deeply, deeply chagrined when the ‘Negroes’ or ‘darkies’ are given the vote and are encouraged to use it to vote the South’s ‘oppressors’ into power. Well, you just try resisting the tempting promise of ‘forty acres and a mule,’ lol.
What seems to be portrayed in the film is a sort of reverse racism perpetrated against the white people by the black people. White people are disenfranchised, shoved off the pavement, chained up and ridiculed by the newly-freed ‘blacks,’ who are shown to be at least as eager for revenge against their former masters as they are to have the right to vote conferred on them.
We see faithful black servants, who still want to remain with and serve the families who previously ‘owned’ them, being rounded up and monstrously ill-treated by the freed ‘blacks’ for not being loyal to the new order.
They’re not allowed the freedom of choice about what they want to do next, they’re just castigated roundly for wanting to stay with their white ‘families.’ Well, striking out on your own can be scary. Maybe they feel safer where they are, especially the older people.
Ben Cameron, the one remaining son of the Camerons and the chap that’s in love with his enemy’s daughter Elsie, gets the bright idea of forming the Ku Klux Klan after seeing some local kids messing about with some bed-sheets. This is the organisation that means to put those uppity ‘blacks’ and ‘carpetbaggers’ firmly back in their place.
Pretty soon the local black population of Piedmont- that’s where they all live- is being terrorised by white-hooded riders too cowardly to show their faces or take direct ownership of their actions.
The most haunting and chilling scenes in the film are similar to those in GONE WITH THE WIND when Scarlett O’Hara, now married to a big girl’s blouse called Frank Kennedy whose lumber business she’s taken over for her own, drives her carriage through the ‘Shanty-Town’ occupied by freed black people, who are portrayed as reprehensible ne’er-do-wells in the film. She does this against the advice of the people around her. Who cares about any possible danger, she clearly thinks to herself, when I’ve got lumber to sell…?
Scarlett may not care a snap of the fingers for her own honour, but there are certain men in her life who do, very much so, in fact. After Scarlett is attacked by one of the black inhabitants of this Shanty-Town, a posse of able-bodied men is speedily gotten up and they go out to the Shanty-Town to clean up the cesspit it’s apparently become. One of these men never comes home at all, and another one nearly doesn’t make it back in one piece…
In THE BIRTH OF A NATION, the youngest sister of Colonel Ben Cameron, he of the Ku Klux Klan, wanders off alone to play by the Spring when she’s been expressly ordered to stay away from there, presumably because it’s dangerous in its isolation from the rest of the town.
There, Flora the sister is pursued by a black man called Gus, who’s already been presented as evil to the viewer, who has ‘ideas above his station’ now. Because black people are now allowed to ‘inter-marry’ with white people, Gus has the idea that the pretty little ringleted Flora is up for grabs. Flora is petrified and runs for her life through the woods…
I won’t tell you how this episode ends for Flora, or for Gus, but if the word ‘lynching’ were to spring unbidden into your mind, well, you wouldn’t be too far off the mark. These are some very chilling and unforgettable scenes.
The period costumes in THE BIRTH OF A NATION are absolutely stunning, especially the women’s dresses, hats and parasols. Even their hair, of which they have masses and masses, is beautifully dressed. Even though the film is black-and-white, you can tell that the costumes are even more detailed and glamorously gorgeous than their Technicolor counterparts in GONE WITH THE WIND.
A couple of miscellaneous items now for y’all to peruse. Not all the black characters in the film are played by black actors and actresses. Rather, they are played by white people gotten up in ‘blackface,’ with the big white lips and everything, a process used back then which would be completely unacceptable today. Apparently, D.W. Griffith had his own reasons for so doing…
Finally, here’s a snippet you don’t get from the film. I learned from the booklet that comes with the film that D.W. Griffith’s earliest memory is of seeing his father ‘jokingly’ threaten an elderly black servant- who’d once been his slave- with a sword, and over a too-tight haircut, of all things. Hmmm. It might all have been a big hilarious jape to Paw Griffith, but I doubt if the old black man who thought he was about to breathe his last was wetting his britches with laughter.
The ending of THE BIRTH OF A NATION is undoubtedly ridiculously racist, and the sudden unexplained appearance of Jesus Christ is like something that Hitler’s Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels might have dreamed up for one of his little anti-Semitic newsreels. If you have to blink and rub your eyes and look again, don’t worry too much about it. I did too…!
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger, poet and book-and-movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens’ fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
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