Society Reflected through Birth of a Nation

         For this essay I choose to talk about Birth of a Nation, directed in 1915 by D. W. Griffith, and its reflection towards society. It is one of the most influential and controversial films in the history of American cinema. This film was the most controversial film I have ever seen. Having no clue about the plot of Birth of a Nation, I found that the warnings I had received about the film seemed opinionated. I know understand that films are just story plots that try to capture the viewer’s interest; however, this film caught all of my attention.

         I found that the plot of this film was hard to believe. I have read about it, heard about it, and learned about. That was the society at that time. However, I do not believe that you can depict a society based on a novel and its film. Birth of a Nation was set during and after the Civil War. Director D.W. Griffith based this film on the novel The Clansman, written by Thomas Dixon. Griffith, a Southerner and the son of a Confederate War cavalry officer, who had returned from the war a broken man only to "suffer the disgrace of Reconstruction," and who had blamed Reconstructionists and Southern blacks for his own misfortunes. This film reflects that resentment by depicting radical Republicans and "uppity" African-Americans as the cause of all social, political, and economic problems since the Civil War (D.W. Griffith, Born of a Nation).

         The film caused a lot a chaos, anger, and glorification in the country. Major reactions caused by this movie are as follows:

             The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP, published a 47-page pamphlet titled "Fighting a Vicious Film: Protest Against The Birth of a Nation," in which they referred to the film as "three miles of filth."

             W. E. B. Du Bois published scathing reviews in The Crisis, spurring a heated debate among the National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures as to whether the film should be shown in New York.

             President and former history professor Woodrow Wilson viewed the film at the White House and proclaimed Birth of a Nation is not only historically accurate, but like "history writ with lightning.”

             Woodrow Wilson and many whites feltBirth of a Nation is a truthful and accurate portrayal of racial politics and flocked to join the rejuvenated Ku Klux Klan. (D.W. Griffith, Born of a Nation)

         Being an African America, I understand the hurt and anger my culture felt with the release of this film. The depiction of us during this period was senseless and shameful. Thomas Cripps, an African American historian, offers a scene-by-scene breakdown of The Birth of a Nation in his book Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942 in relation to the way in which African Americans might have viewed the film in 1915. Cripps depicts four key scenes from The Birth of a Nation that express the film’s powerful artistry, historical distortions, and racist sensibilities:

             Drawn from A History of the American People, published originally in 1902 by Woodrow Wilson, who in 1915 just happened to be president of the United States; Wilson’s prose introduces the Reconstruction section of the film, making the rise of the Ku Klux Klan a positive good that resulted in the redemption of the white South from the ravages of Negro and Carpetbagger rule.

             A scene set in the South Carolina legislature in the early 1870s (introduced with an intertitle that suggests that what is to follow is drawn from “historic incidents”), which depicts newly elected black legislators lolling in their chairs, their feet bare, eating chicken and drinking whiskey, leering at white women in the visitors’ gallery.

             A scene in which one of the film’s white southern heroes witnesses a group of white children donning white bed sheets, inadvertently scaring several black children playing nearby, which provides him with “The Inspiration” for the              Klan’s infamous outfits.

             A scene of Klansmen, dressed in white sheets and astride horses, dumping the body of the character Gus, an African American who they had killed for causing Flora, the little sister of the story’s southern white protagonists, to hurl herself off a cliff. (“Art and History by Lightning Flash”: The Birth of a Nation and Black Protest)

         As stated before, I have read about it, head about it and learn about the history between African Americans and the Ku Klux Klan. This was the viewpoint of the society during this time period. However, I do not believe that you can depict a society based of a novel. Having a bias towards a culture does not tell the truth of a society. However, I only view this film as a history lesson because you learn from your past to improve your future.

Works Cited

“Art and History by Lightning Flash”: The Birth of a Nation and Black Protest 27 Feb. 2008 (http://chnm.gmu.edu/features/episodes/birthofanation.html).

Cripps, Thomas. Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942 New York: Oxford University P, 1977.

“D.W. Griffith. Born of a Nation” 27 Feb. 2008. (http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/birth.html).

Kyra Williams

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