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Birth of a Nation (1915): A New Perspective

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Birth of a Nation (1915): A New Perspective

Postby moira finnie » April 6th, 2008, 11:32 am

Our friend of the SSO, Scott Eyman, reviews a new, intriguing sounding book today in the Palm Beach Post. It is called D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (Oxford) by Melvyn Stokes. The author went back to D.W. Griffith's 1905 source material, the book by Thomas Dixon, The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, which Eyman describes as "insanely incendiary." According to the scholaly study, the novel was toned down considerably by Griffith, who to 2008 eyes may appear to be simply a racist, but in the context of his own lifetime, may not have been considered one, (at least by many whites). I wonder if Griffith also had to tone down the racism that was woven into the popular repertory company play based on the novel?
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Postby Synnove » April 6th, 2008, 12:01 pm

He was forced to make a few cuts after the film's initial release. For instance, he removed some scenes in the end that showed black people being sent to Africa as a solution. He certainly toned it down from the novel, I've read a few excerpts. The Birth of a Nation is bad enough as it is, though.

:D That sounds like a great book! I want to read it.

drednm

Postby drednm » April 14th, 2008, 1:21 pm

From what I've read, Thomas Dixon, the author of the original material was a purposeful racist. By that I mean he enjoyed being as outrageous as possible in order to stir up trouble. What Griffith saw (or didn't see) in Dixon's book is certainly an interesting topic. This book sounds really interesting.

Yes Griffith toned down a lot of Dixon's material but stuck to the historically accurate stuff regarding the KKK, the Reconstruction Period, etc. Griffith's prologue to the film makes it clear he was trying to make an historically accurate film (which I think he did), but he couldn't resist the melodramatic touches that likely come from the old play and fit in with the race (as opposed to racist.... this is an important distinction in trying to understand this film) attitudes of the day, especially melodramatic plays based on UNCLE TOM'S CABIN.

I'll certainly look for this new book... thanks for the tip.

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Postby Synnove » April 14th, 2008, 3:24 pm

It's interesting that you brought up Uncle Tom's Cabin. Like Kevin Brownlow said in his thread, it might have been better if Griffith, for the sake of his own legacy, had adapted Uncle Tom's Cabin instead of The Clansman. Although it contains stereotypes which would be deemed racist today, Uncle Tom's Cabin was anti-slavery when it came. Seen within the context of its time, it's more progressive, while The Clansman is the opposite. I think that was a vital difference between those two plays.

As for historical accuracy, Griffith, as Thomas Dixon and president Woodrow Wilson had done before him, slanted history in a way that suited his agenda. There is at least one instance in the film where he claim to be depicting facts in one of his facimiles, when he is in fact reproducing a racist cartoon. I'm talking about the courtroom scene, where black people, former slaves, are seen loafing about with their feet on the table, behaving like perfect oafs and glaring lustily up at the white women. They have taken over the government, we are led to believe, and their goal is to defile aryan maidenhood.

Then, Griffith comes up with what you might describe as a melodramatic embellishment, Gus chasing after Flora, and Lynch trapping Elsie Stoneman. This is not historical fact, is it? When Griffith himself was asked if he could name any case similar to the one with Lynch and Elsie, he couldn't answer. So we will call it a melodramatic embellishment. But is it an embellishment? Isn't it, in fact, vitally important to the climax of the story? You do get the sense that this was the biggest threat the freed slaves posed in Griffith's mind, since he put so much stress on it. You have the black people staring at the white women in the courtroom, you have Lynch lusting after Elsie, Gus lusting after Flora, and father Cameron putting a gun to his eldest daughter's head so that she won't have to suffer a Fate Worse than Death.

It seems to me that this is pure racism. I can find no other word for it. It's a textbook example. Isn't that what it's all about, the fear of intigrating with what you percieve to be an inferior race of humans? And the film did so much damage. I know Griffith didn't intend for it to breathe life into the revived clan, which he did not support. But it's not always the thought that counts, is it?

I don't want the film to be banned. And of course it is important to realize that this was not an uncommon attitude, but why can't we call it by its proper name? We don't condone hate crimes like lynching anymore, do we? We are moving away from that, aren't we?

I don't know why I can never shut up about this subject, even for my own good...

drednm

Postby drednm » April 14th, 2008, 3:59 pm

I certainly see your point regarding the loafing, shuffling etc.... all stereotypes that would exist in Hollywood films well into the 30s (and beyond?) but then Griffith did not invent these attitudes. That he chose to use them for dramatic effect is another matter, as is the attempted or perceived rape of Mae Marsh's character. I'm never sure what the motives are here. It's clear what Marsh's character thinks as she pitches herself off a cliff, but are we ever sure what Long's character is really after? It almost doesn't matter since the outcome of the scene is based on Marsh's reality of the situation. Again, the scene is more for dramatic effect than historical accuracy and comes right out of 19th century melodrama.

UNCLE TOM'S CABIN has sort of boomeranged over the decades. As you note the Stowe novel (biggest selling book of the 19th century outside of the bible) was a staunchly anti-slavery tract but it also contained what are now seen as racial stereotypes (as you noted). So even the best of intentions get deconstructed by later generations.

By WW I, UNCLE TOM'S CABIN had almost reversed its original intentions and had become a parody of the times and events rather than an expose, partly because of the hacks who then ran repertory theaters. I even remember a Little Rascals version from the 30s which did little more than depict the characters as comic stereotypes.

Brownlow makes an interesting comment in his response that he had no memory of BIRTH OF A NATION being labeled as racist when he was a kid. Neither do I. The labels change with the decades. My assertion is that if there are racist elements in the film (from our current perspective) I choose to think that they were not intentional of Griffith's part. More to the point, those elements reflect the RACE ATTITUDES (and again this is not RACISM as we use the word now) of his generation.

Brownlow also mentions BROKEN BLOSSOMS and its attitudes toward Asians... Yes there are cringe-worthy moments in that films as well, but again was that Griffith's point in making the film? The language and attitudes reflect the times.

I agree, it's an endlessly fascinating topic, so long as people DISCUSS it and not RAGE at each other. I'm glad you don't think THE BIRTH OF A NATION should be banned. It has so many incredible and innovative scenes in it, and Henry B. Walthall is superb.

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Postby bdp » April 14th, 2008, 4:21 pm

Actually the Silas Lynch character is pure fiction, as no African-American held any executive position at that time in South Carolina (or, I believe, anywhere else) so that all elements of the plot concerning that character are contrivances for the sake of Griffith's purposes. That Stoneman is 'patterned after' Thaddeus Stephens is worth noting; Stephens died in the early days of reconstruction, and certainly since Lynch never had a historical counterpart the connection between that character and Stoneman is pure contrivance as well.

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Postby Synnove » April 14th, 2008, 4:29 pm

It is innovative, and it is also of great historical value, since it exposes the social attitudes of that time.

The loafing and all that was a common stereotype, but what Griffith does is that he passes it off as historical fact. He basically says that this scene is based on a photo, when it is in fact taken from a cartoon charicature. That is a blatant lie which mislead audiences of the time, who believed in his facimiles. Since so many other facimile intertitles referred to known truths, they would naturally have assumed that this was also truth. I don't know what he meant by it, but its effect was that it caused a serious setback in race relations for years to come. For that, I think he should be held responsible to some extent, no matter what his original intentions were. If that was just melodramatic effect, it was irresponsably used, in view of the damage it created.

Of course it is true that stories like Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Clansman get new labels with every new time. Does that mean that we ought to keep neutral about their ideological content for the sake of judging history fairly? I don't think so. Today we view slavery as morally wrong and a gross violation of human rights, which I think is a step towards enlightenment. And the fact remains that The Clansman, and The Birth of a Nation, advocated white supremacy.

If it wasn't labeled racist when you were young, then that only demonstrates, to me, how deeply rooted the racist way of thinking has been in society. I still don't understand why we can't call it by it's proper name just because it was the accepted way of thinking 90 years ago. Antisemitism was accepted before WWII, but we wouldn't presume to call it 'attitudes about Judaism' because of that, would we? It was antisemitism then, and we call it that now. We know what it led to. Racism against black people led to the same thing on a slightly smaller scale: oppression and murder.

I don't think Broken Blossoms changes what The Birth represents. As far as I know, Griffith didn't make any movies dealing with the problem of the segregation of the black people in the United States after The Birth. Broken Blossoms and The Red Man's View deal with intolerance towards different groups of people. It seems to me that Griffith, while capable of great humanism and tolerance, had a blind spot against one certain group of people, which was related to his childhood during the reconstruction.

I don't want to condemn him as a frothing-at-the-mouth lunatic, but it seems to me, that if a movie as blatant as The Birth of a Nation can't be called racist, then nothing can ever be called racist. And that makes me wonder why I spend so much energy reading about it, since it was never a problem.

drednm

Postby drednm » April 14th, 2008, 4:38 pm

I still say it RACE ATTITUDE vs RACISM.... 2 different things.

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Postby Synnove » April 14th, 2008, 4:41 pm

I know they are two different things, that's why I insist that it was racism and nothing else.

:? Shall we just agree to disagree about this?

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Postby drednm » April 14th, 2008, 4:44 pm

I bought the book in any case.... my final word is what it all comes down to: CONTEXT.

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Postby Synnove » April 14th, 2008, 4:54 pm

It's the perfect excuse.

Okay, I'm done now, I swear...

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Postby Ann Harding » April 15th, 2008, 3:58 am

I totally agree with what Synnove has written. I couldn't have put it better myself. :)

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Postby myrnaloyisdope » May 29th, 2008, 12:17 am

I agree with Synnove as well.

I really admire the film for it's technical achievement and how well it's made, but I always get torn up when I watch it. I watch it with a bizarre combination of awe and horror, sometimes I am almost in tears of joy, and other times I am egregiously offended.

I can't really think of another film that accomplishes the same feelings, maybe Triumph of the Will, but that is so obviously and intentionally propagandistic that you can distance yourself.

Nation is a lot tougher for me to resolve. And I am not sure I ever will.

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Postby SSO Admins » May 29th, 2008, 9:31 am

mlid, I tend to agree with you. It's blatantly offensive, yet like most of Griffith's films has an undeniable power.

It took watching several Griffiths for me to put BaoN aside and fully recognize his cinematic brilliance, so deeply did this one bother me. Of late I've become a Griffith defender -- not of the racism inherent in this film, but of his work as a pioneer and a great director. It's a shame that his best known movie is so deeply disturbing that his genius is often secondary.

Synnove, excellent posts that ai agree with completely. I think that whether Brownlow or others remember it as being racist, it was perceived that way even at the time of release. It opened to protests and riots, and inspired two contradictory films. Progressive newspapers railed against it. Woodrow Wilson, who was initially quoted as having loved the film ("it's like writing history with lightning") later disassociated himself from it.

Funny aneccdote: awhile back I had to argue back against some idiot on the LiveJournal silent film community who was doing video reviews of films listed in "1001 Films You Must See Before You Die" and posted that he refused to see any more Griffith films after watching BoaN in "protest of the racism." I pointed out that Griffith did some of the best work of the silent era, and to deprive himself of seeing those films was downright stupid, especially if you want a sense of how film evolved. He said that he knew how film evolved because he'd seen Singing in the Rain. Good grief.

It's a difficult position to defend Griffith as an artist while condemning the racism in his best known work.

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Postby MichiganJ » May 29th, 2008, 10:41 am

I am very interested in reading this book. I think context does play some part in the racism discussion, and it appears that this is what Melvyn Stoke’s book provides.

Considering Dixon’s original book and how adamantly Griffith defended his film and its content as historically true, it’s hard not to see the old adage altered somewhat, as The Clansman and The Birth of a Nation are certainly “History as written by the losers.”

As a film, I, too, have mixed feelings about Birth. There’s no denying the amazing cinematic achievement, essentially establishing film’s narrative technique, used to this day.

But, at what cost?

I’d seen Birth of a Nation many times, but it wasn’t until I watched it in an Intro to Film class in college, with a mixed-raced audience, that I fully appreciated the deplorable racism that permeates the second half. That the film itself was, and is, racist, is, I think, pretty evident. It was as a result of the racism charges against Griffith, (and his continuing battles with various censorship boards around the country) that prompted his writing the pamphlet: “The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America” (and, ultimately led to his masterpiece, Intolerance.)

As for Griffith, if he wasn’t a racist himself, why would he want to adopt Dixon’s novel at all? Griffith must have realised how incendiary the novel was, otherwise why did he feel the need to tone it down? Even “toned down”, the book and Griffith’s film try to make the case that Southern white men and women were literally under attack by the newly freed men and thus needed to create an underground army to protect themselves, when, in fact, it was the freed black men that needed the protection. In an effort to justify their vehemence, the Southern whites built a mythology of black violence, crime, etc., all of which is shown as “fact” in BOAN.

Synnove is absolutely right in Griffith’s outrageous “Historical Facsimile” depicting the “negro control of the State House of Representatives of South Carolina” as bare foot, lusting, drinking, out of control louts, who pass laws such as: “It is moved and carried that all whites must salute negro officers on the streets.” This sequence is all the more reprehensible after Griffith’s earlier, painstakingly accurate historical facsimiles (many staged from actual photographs), leading viewers of the day to, perhaps, believe this nonsense is as true as Lee’s surrender to Grant.

Griffith also goes to great pains to show us that the freed black men, with their new right to vote, will automatically abuse that power, stuffing the ballot box. In contrast, when a Clansman is the poll taker, the black men are too intimidated to vote at all. In Griffith’s mind, as per the film, this is as it should be.

One of the most telling indictments of Griffith’s racism is found in an intertitle. After showing the horrors of the war and the divisions of North and South, it is the uprising of the freedmen where: “The former enemies of North and South are united again in common defense of their Aryan birthright.”

Accused of racism, Griffith continued to defend himself by claiming that the evil Silas Lynch was not black but mulatto. It’s interesting, however, that Griffith’s title reads: “Lynch a traitor to his white patron and a greater traitor to his own people...” It’s clear that even though Lynch is mulatto, Griffith “condemns” him as black, or perhaps, even worse then black.

Because Griffith was a Southerner, BOAN naturally has a Southern slant, and I’m sure that Griffith didn’t see himself as racist. Even when confronted with the overwhelming “proofs” in his own film, Griffith continued to deny the charge. But the question remains, given the uproar over BOAN, even on its release, and given the fact that Griffith tinkered with the editing of the film up to his death, why did he never see fit to remove even some of the most outrageous racial scenes?

Griffith (one of my favorite directors, by the way) and The Birth of a Nation are so important in the history of film (Birth is arguably the most influential film in history), and its reflections of America, then and now, continues to be the subject of these intriguing discussions.


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