The Birth of a Nation's Real Meaning

        The Birth of a Nation, directed by D.W. Griffith in 1915, is one of the most famous and controversial movies, ever made. It was one of the first feature-length films and blockbusters ever produced. It is a film most remembered for its racist portrayal of the period in American history after the Civil War known as Reconstruction. The Birth of a Nation's innovative techniques made it an important silent film. However, the film glorified slavery, provided historical justification for segregation and disfranchisement of African American people.

        It is a film that can easily be used to teach against racism, and it should be cherished instead of frowned upon. As fan of this film, I am quickly judged as either a racist or a hardcore film buff, who is ignoring the movie's controversial nature. The controversy over the film has spanned nearly ninety years, including attempts to censor or completely do away with the film.

        The film's racism seems more outrageous than controversial now. It is difficult to comprehend such blatant bigotry, although bigotry still exists today. Much of this country's dark history with race relations has been more ignored than acknowledged. Go back just fifty years ago, and you would see a whole different society. Would people today be offended by the images in Birth of a Nation? Without question they would. This is a film where blacks are made out to be evil, trying to take over the country after they have earned their freedom. They tamper with the voting box, disenfranchising the white vote. The white Southerners are called the "helpless white minority." The film even points out Woodrow Wilson's History of the American People, as it states that the freeing of the slaves, along with Reconstruction, is "a veritable overthrow of civilization in the South ... in their determination to put the white South under the heel of the Black South." Also insulting is that many of the black characters are white men in black face. That was as common a practice as racism.

        One can tell that the film's strong point is not completely accurate. Reconstruction was more of a failure than a victory. The slaves were freed and given land, yet they had no clue about how to manage the land or their free lives. It would take years for them to gain the status they desired. The film feels more realistic when commenting on class and regional struggles.

        For the film to be beneficial it needs to be watched and discussed. In my opinion, it should be shown in history courses, if for nothing else than to view how racial politics worked until the middle of the twentieth century.

Matthew Whitted

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