Birth of a Nation: Hollywood’s Ideas on Race Relations

         Hollywood has always been the place to see a form of reality, from watching King Kong climbing the Empire State Building to watching Civil War reenactments that are true to life. Yet Hollywood has always fallen under the ideas of society. The public has noticed this when the government was looking for American Communists in Hollywood. Individuals working in Hollywood were scared to write certain things especially if they, in any way, contradicted what the government was doing at the time. In the case of D. W. Griffith's 1915 Birth of a Nation, society's ideas are seen in the casting of black roles. During this time period in American history, African Americans were seen as second class people, and films of this time are a good source to see society's ideas of "blacks."

         This is evident in The Birth of a Nation, the whole film revolves around on how bad African Americans are for America and how the KKK saved the South. The second intertitle in the movie sums up the whole idea of the movie in one sentence, "The bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion." The Birth of a Nation goes onto show many scenes depicting African Americans as ignorant, lazy, and/or just troublesome. In the scene of the South Carolina legislature meeting, the audience watches as the African Americans are taking of their shoes, drinking, and eating chicken. Even the eating of chicken is an African American stereotype that sadly we still hold onto today.

         These ideas do not stop with just African Americans but continue on to mulattos, or people who share white ancestry as well as African. Mulattos, within the film, can choose to be a good, a faithful servant, or bad, wanting to take over like the other African Americans.

         The discrimination of the movie did not stop with just the characters seen within the movie, but the actors suffered as well. There is not one leading black role that is not played by a black-faced white. White actors would color their faces with burnt cork to make themselves look black. The parts that were held by African Americans were small, and usually they played slaves. Hence the part of the Cameron's Mammy was played by a black actress.

         Throughout all of this, Griffith honestly believed his movie had a purpose and positive meaning for the nation. Sadly, many people believed the ideology of the movie, and Griffith had academics stand up for him in a debate over the racism of the movie. Yet the academics chosen by Griffith tended to support racist and Southern sympathizers. Griffith later made another movie, Intolerance, to rebut the attacks on his racial and prejudiced ideas in Birth.

         The Birth of a Nation is just a small part of the bigger ideology of Hollywood. There are many more movies that show these exact injustices. Matter of fact, Victor Fleming's 1939 Gone with the Wind, one of the top grossing movies of all times, had many of these themes within its context. Yet Gone with the Wind was filmed twenty-five years after Birth. These ideas, even though protested religiously, stayed around for quite a while and can still be seen in some forms of media today.

Amy Hiett

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