Following on from our last episode on social hot topics, we take a look at two very different takes on post-Civil War race relations with D W Griffiths’ 1915 Birth of a Nation, and Nate Parker’s 2016 reclamation. Listen, if you dare.
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I had wondered what the silent movie title card equivalent of “I’m not racist, but…” was, but DW Griffiths rides to the rescue on that score.
I suppose we should place this in the time of its creation. Space Year Nineteen Fifteen was still very much the infancy of the Hollywood film industry, which, if you’ll permit a gross simplification, largely consisted of the comedy pratfalls of the likes of Chaplin and Arbuckle, or the powerhouse that was Cecil B. Demille – 14 directorial credits in 1915, including nine of the top grossing films of the year. Europe, of course, had other concerns during this timeframe.
The top grossing film in 1915, however, was the groundbreaking Birth of a Nation, a three hour long adaptation in an era where less substantial one hour films were the norm, inasmuch as there was a norm for any of this cinema malarkey. Demille’s Carmen, the second top grossing film of 1915 took about $150,000 – a nice return in 1915 money. The accounting is obtuse, but estimates place Birth of a Nation as taking somewhere between $10 and $100 million. Orders of magnitude more, and adjusted for inflation well into the range of todays blockbuster take. So, well kent, you might say.
You may have notice I glossed over what this was an adaptation of. The Clansman, also the film’s original title, ought to be setting alarm bells ringing, particularly given the subtitle A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. So, not a Highlander fanfic, sadly.
The first half of the film covers the American Civil War itself, and ignoring certain very large aspects, which we’ll get to, is barely reprehensible at all. Comparatively. It’s focusing on two respected families who’s younger scions are friendly with each other, the Stonemans in the North, and the Camerons in the South, who will soon find themselves on opposite sides on the Civil War. This in particular would threaten the possible relationship between Henry Walthall’s Col. Ben Cameron and Lillian Gish’s Elsie, the daughter of the Honorable Austin Stoneman, leader of the house and barely veiled Thaddeus Stevens surrogate.
I’m no expert in the era, but it seems uncontroversial enough to state that in terms of film-making scale and technique, this was a leap forward. With a then huge production budget, this managed to show large scale scenes, in particular battle sequences, that were a far cry from the usual, closer to filmed plays that were still common. It’s also an early showing for things taken for granted today, like close-ups and a bespoke score. It this aspect, it is argued, that makes this film relevant today.
Now, perhaps the most immediately obvious thing I’ve glossed over so far is the extensive use of blackface – white actors made up to “look” black, with extremely limited success. It’s not like it was alone in using this, and it was still in depressingly widespread use until depressingly recently. I don’t think any modern audience is going to disagree that this was a reprehensible practice, so while there is a school of thought that you shouldn’t hold any artefact of the time it was made responsible for the norms of that time, I don’t hold with that school, and anyway, given the content of the film, it’s uniquely appalling here. Try and imagine watching this as a African American, with their portrayal here, and also being told through the casting choices that we don’t even think a African American could convincingly live up to those low standards.
And Jesus, what low standards they are. The very few slaves you might want to argue are seen in anything approaching a positive light are essentially happily subservient Uncle Toms (eg credited as Mammy, The Faithful Servant), while anyone black or white with the temerity to suggest that human beings are born equal and ought to be treated at such is shown as a monster – almost literally in the case of George Siegmann’ Silas Lynch – the “Mulatto Lieut. Governor”, as the credits would have it.
The second half of this film, set after the assassination of Lincoln by the coward Robert Ford at Dealey Plaza, sees Stoneman and his Radical buddies take control of the government agenda and force through harsher terms on the slave states. With the softly-softly approach out of the window, Lynch starts orchestrating a power grab, encouraging black voters to vote for black candidates, almost as though they’re real people or something, marginalising those poor white people who find their former possessions in a surprisingly unforgiving mood.
Soon, feeling oppressed and threatened by this turn of events, and on a personal level Ben Cameron’s worries about Lynch’s designs on his squeeze Elsie Stoneman, Cameron creates the KKK to defend his oppressed minority, and eventually intimidate the black voters into not voting, under threat of death. Land of the free and the home of the brave.
The films attitude is perhaps best encapsulated by the intertitle, “The former enemies of North and South are united again in defence of their Aryan birthright”, which I’m sure no-one’s going to argue is anything other than textbook white supremacist language. Frankly, even if you were to take on face value the film’s account of the horrors of the reconstruction from the white perspective, it’s still nothing that’s going to excuse the damned KKK.
The film, of course, takes time out to make sure that any white people that sympathise with the blacks is also a coward and/or a hypocrite, Stoneman particularly, but it’s the portrayal of black people that makes this a real treat for bigots. It shows them as barely removed from beasts, and that’s understating it. It’s jaw-droppingly offensive on every level, in ways that I don’t even think I need to elucidate on. We’ve not moved on anywhere like enough on race relations in the last hundred years, but I think one thing we’ve all settled on its that this is some completely indefensible garbage. Well, at least in terms of its narrative of reconstruction era black bashing, Klan lauding horse manure. The question of its technical worth remains, however.
For my money, any lessons this could teach have been taken, refined and expanded on so much that they’re not worth learning any more than if you were going to learn computer programming, you wouldn’t spend time looking at the most elegant series of punched cards as anything other than a curiosity. Perhaps you could level the same point at something like Citizen Kane, and I’d at least hear that argument, but Citizen Kane still has a great story, that, as a small bonus, isn’t stupendously racist.
So, even if you are better at separating the technique from the content than I am, I’d still contend there’s nothing of value here in terms of storytelling that you couldn’t get from less offensive films, or even plays and novels, and the more technical aspects while groundbreaking for the time, would be like looking a George Melies’ films as an instructional tool for 3D rendering software.
It has been left behind, and does not deserve to be dredged up in the modern era as anything other than a cautionary tale. Despite what Griffiths’ title cards would have us think, that’s not an argument for censorship. It’s just not engaging with an argument that has very obviously has no worth to it. “No platform” this film, my fellow snowflakes.
Director Nate Parker deliberately took the title of that hideous 1915 film for the title of his 2016 directorial debut – Griffith’s film provoked a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and an increase in violence against black citizens; Parker hoped to have a similarly powerful effect, but with a positive influence.
This The Birth of a Nation is a biopic, telling the relatively little-known story of Nat Turner, a slave preacher who led an uprising of his fellow slaves against their captors in Virginia in 1831. In an early scene the boy Nat is marked out for glory, a prophet who would lead his oppressed people, something which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This journey begins when Nat steals a book and teaches himself to read, a feat which simply amazes Penelope Ann Miller’s Elizabeth Turner, the wife of Nat’s master. Elizabeth takes it upon herself to teach young Nat using the bible.
Years later, as an adult, we see him eventually become a preacher to his unfortunate fellows. The old master Turner is dead, and his son Samuel (Armie Hammer), once Nat’s childhood playmate, is now in charge. Nat and Samuel’s relationship appears reasonably genial, and it seems that Nat likes, and even trusts, Samuel. But after Nat is hired out to surrounding farms to preach calmness to their uppity slaves and quell fears of an uprising, he belatedly comes to the realisation that there is no such thing as “the good and kindly master”, there is only evil, and less evil.
Further abhorrent actions by Samuel and other slaveholders awakens purpose in Nat, and he begins to organise the slaves, who see him as their messiah. The end result is the two-day rebellion, which saw the deaths of many white slaveholding families and the deaths of considerably more black people in retaliation.
The Birth of a Nation is populated by singularly evil people, for whom unspeakable acts of cruelty and barbarity are common, everyday, mundane. That matter of fact-ness really magnifies the horror of what these slaves had to suffer, and the immense difficulty that the likes of Turner had in improving their lot. Those are amongst the most affecting moments in the film.
Turner’s deep knowledge of biblical scripture, ironically afforded him by his white jailers, leads to some satisfying scenes when he turns the slaveholders’ own justifications for their positions against them (though it’s not at all clear if Turner, or indeed Parker, is aware of the ridiculousness of a book whose contradictions and hypocrisies allows it to be used to argue for and against the same thing).
The acting throughout is at least competent, and in some places strong, it’s well shot – in fact, it’s beautiful, and that juxtaposition of picturesque landscapes in which true horror is perpetrated is affecting – but in many respects it’s uneven (and the visions are simply a distraction), and its climax is a bit too heroic, a bit too Braveheart. It is also, very much, a man’s film, told from a man’s perspective. The male slaves in Birth may have very little agency, but the women have none, and their role is too often portrayed as victim for the purposes of having a man seek revenge. It sadly also lacks room for much nuance or complication, though it does explore the crossover between religion and capitalism that was such an important part of the justification of the Southern economy at the time.
It’s certainly interesting and, with the regular caveat of one requiring the ability to separate the art from the artist, it’s something that I would recommend seeing. It is, in almost every way, a mainstream film, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but while it has some shocking moments, and a righteous anger, its ensconcement inside of the comfort of mainstream structure and storytelling blunts its edge and robs of it power. Additionally, though Nat Turner’s story is worthy of telling, and too little known, Parker’s film is a (contemporarily relevant) polemic but also a revenge film. And if you want to watch an antebellum-era, revisionist revenge film, then your first stop should be Django Unchained which, lack of historical basis aside, is the superior of this film in every way. Should you have time for two such films, though, then make The Birth of a Nation your second stop.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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