The Birth of a Nation was one of the original American silent film and motion picture to be screened in the United States, and even the White House. This movie depicts African-Americans as savages, wanting to cause harm and steal European-American women. However, the Ku Klux Klan are praised for their heroic deeds against these “savages”. In the first scene of the movie, African-Americans are depicted as slaves, while the European-Americans are dressed exceptionally well, immediately separating the social and racial classes. Although a few African-Americans were cast in this feature film, the majority of the actors were “blackface”, otherwise known as a European-American with their face painted black. The book, Celebrity Culture & the American Dream by Karen Sternheimer, states that “references to Africans or Native-Americans as savages were not unusual, and African- Americans were all but ignored until the 1940s, when any coverage tended to rely on stock racist caricatures” (Sternheimer 6). The cinematic adaptation of race contained several mockeries of African-Americans, that would not only harm their social interaction for decades to come, but people of all color. According to Jessica Schulz on Hackintohistory.org “The African-Americans in the South were segregated through local and state legislatures passing laws that kept them separated from the the white society” (Schulz Group 1). Even to this day, there are lingering sways of racial bias and racism that has not been eradicated, due to behaviors and biases that arose so long ago. Even though slavery was abolished, it was not a popular decision. As a result, racism has continued to be a social construct in American culture, bred and taught within the parameters of society. According to English philosopher John Locke, an individual is born tabula rasa, meaning blank slate. Thus, for one to evolve into a racist, one must be taught racism.
As previously mentioned, The Birth of a Nation was viewed in the White House. As the first 12-reel motion picture, this movie was bound to receive popularity and attention from the start. Additionally, the film’s ideology forces viewers to see only through a bias lens of racism. The underlying racial slurs were synonymous with the “dominant racial ideology” of the time period in 1915 segregated America (Wallace 85). Definitely, one of the most riveting scenes in the movie is the assassination of the President who abolished slavery Abraham Lincoln. On the more political side, the infamous national organization the Ku Klux Klan starred in this film. Including the organization, allowed for marketing of the group, as well as redefined the meaning of the “white hood”. Consequently, “[the] racist tale of the Ku Klux Klan was not a problem for many white, rural audience members—the same people who would otherwise be most critical of a medium that attracted urbanites and immigrants” (Sternheimer 34). This gained a following in many southern states, including Georgia. These and many other events transpired in response to this socially expressive film. Even though The Birth of a Nation is a silent film, it does display words on a slide throughout the movie. Hence, one of those slides stated “Their leaders must be hanged and their states treated as conquered provinces” referring to the African Americans. Therefore, the film points to an overarching theme of folklore present from introducing credits to the ending scene. Folklore can be defined as, “a body of widely held, but false or unsubstantiated beliefs”. As stated by Jessica’s blog on Hackintohistory.org “perhaps the most devastating aspect of the period was the corruption and abuses incurred under the Freedmen Bureau which was created to help not only the former slaves and mulattoes, but other displaced persons and refugees. In primary source 8, Lucy McMillan, a former slave in South Carolina, explains how the Klu Klux Klan came to her house, took away her husband, threatened to whip her, and burned down her property. Showing that reconstruction failed, and the blacks were not seen as equal to rights during this period” (Schulz Group 1). Hence, although the racist ideology present in this film, from the blackface actors to the misrepresentation of the KKK organization, is widely held, it is unsubstantiated other than bias that has traveled through generations based off mere opinion and hearsay of inequality.
The historical context of this movie takes place in the early 1900s. The film itself debuted in 1915. There were a few social and political events going on during that time including the Great Migration and World War I. The Great Migration occurred due to the lack of economic opportunities and terrible segregation laws that occurred in the South. This triggered a massive movement of African-Americans to leave the South and move elsewhere, including the Northeast, Michigan, and some areas in the Midwest. This historical event took place for more than fifty years, starting in 1916 until the 1970s. The Great Migration was also said to be inspired partially by World War I. Throughout World War I, African-Americans viewed the war as an opportunity that they could demonstrate patriotism. This, in turn, would earn them a place as equal citizens in American culture. Many of the African-American soldiers had grown weary of racial discrimination and abuse in the trenches that forces violence from both sides.
Release Date in the USA: February 8, 1915
Directors: D. W. Griffith
Producers: D. W. Griffith
Screenplay by: D. W. Griffith
Frank E. Woods
Actors: Lillian Gish
Henry B. Walthall
- Wallace, Michele Faith. “The Good Lynching and ‘The Birth of a Nation’: Discourses and Aesthetics of Jim Crow.” Cinema Journal, vol. 43, no. 1, 2003, pp. 85–104. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1225932.
- schulz, jessica. “Teambadass.” Teambadass, 18 Feb. 2015, teambadasshist110.wordpress.com/.
- “Folklore.” Dictionary.com, Dictionary.com, http://www.dictionary.com/browse/folklore?s=t.
- Sternheimer, Karen. Celebrity Culture and the American Dream: Stardom and Social Mobility. Routledge, 2015.
- “Great Migration.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2010, http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/great-migration.