“What a strange contradiction was D. W. Griffith.”
– Kevin Brownlow, We Can Never Censor the Past, BFI booklet
“Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard its spots?”
– Thomas Dixon, pull quote on cover of his novel The Leopard’s Spots
“She had gathered, also, that some of the free negroes were getting quite insolent.”
– Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind.1
* * *
A Difficult Birth
Over the years, boutique labels like Britain’s BFI and the U.S.’s Kino International can’t seem to stop issuing video editions of The Birth of a Nation because, apparently, they sell – perhaps not like hotcakes – but for a 100-year-old silent film, I’m guessing, very well indeed.
Yet, arguably, Birth of a Nation has never ceased being the most reviled film in the history of cinema, with Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) running a close second. As the question of race in America refuses to yield any answers in the 21st century, Birth’s vision of the Reconstruction era and the creation of the KKK becomes increasingly difficult to take in, justify, or simply ignore – in spite of D. W. Griffith’s vivid, exciting filmmaking and the decades of his recognition as a cinema pioneer.
So then. Does the film sell simply because it is controversial? Or because it has historical importance, that is, value as a perennial reminder of our everlasting racial divide? Or, more plausibly, does it sell because people somehow – even as most recognize and abhor its primitive racist polemic – enjoy it?2
I’ll admit it: I enjoy The Birth of a Nation. How do I manage that? Be assured, it’s complicated. After watching BFI’s new release, it became clear that any pleasure I take in this film involves an increasingly troublesome process, a maneuvering of my sensibilities and aesthetics around and about my social awareness and historical perspectives, however narrow and limited these latter two may be. And what role does my race (Caucasian) play in my ability to enjoy it? I doubt that many African Americans, lacking the ability to dodge or compartmentalize the film’s racism, can enjoy, respect, admire Griffith’s achievements in Birth.
Released in November, 2015, BFI’s deluxe, two-disc edition is a generous, even lavish package. Disc one features the film itself in a brand new restoration scanned mostly from “an original 35mm nitrate print of the 1921 reissue, tinted and toned,” with some missing sections filled in with scans from an original negative held in the Library of Congress.3 Conducted by John Lanchbery, the original orchestral score by John Carl Breil accompanies the 4K transfer.4 The results are both visually and aurally stunning – the film has never been better served on home video.
Disc two carries a plethora of extras. Some, like the prologue and intermission introduction for the 1930 sound reissue of Birth, featuring Griffith and Walter Huston holding forth in defense of the film, have been featured on earlier releases. But BFI goes further by offering four other silent films with Civil War themes, including a feature, The Coward (1911), and, the most revealing of the bunch, a Biograph short by Griffith, The Rose of Kentucky (1911), of which we’ll speak more later on.
Any celebration of the film’s centenary becomes tempered, however, by the edition’s commentary, which comes in the form of essays within the accompanying booklet, a 33-minute “roundtable discussion filmed at the BFI Southbank,” and a 20-minute filmed interview by scholar Melvyn Stokes on Thomas Dixon’s play The Clansman and Griffith’s Birth. Perhaps inevitably – considering the never-ending racist times we Americans live in (whether or not said racism is overt, institutional, or hiding beneath a benign liberal veneer) – the written and filmed analysis mostly holds its focus on Birth’s survival as a spectacle of virulent racism. The discussion group, held on June 25, 2015 as part of a conference, is particularly damning of the film.
Not mentioned anywhere in the release is exactly what kind of event made up this conference, other than, I assume, a showing of the film, with this roundtable perhaps following it. Speaking in BFI’s Southbank in London, Linda Williams of the University of California, Berkeley, makes the point that the film could not currently be shown publicly in the US without attracting protest in the form of demonstrations or even violence – a stricture that has held fast for decades. Indeed, the only way anyone in this country can see Birth these days is on home video.
Williams also reminds her colleagues at the table that just the week before, the 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof, had massacred nine African Americans at the Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina (the state in which Birth takes place). Addressing one of his victims, he prefaced his murder spree with this disclaimer, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.”
Ten full decades after the end of the Civil War, Roof’s statement succinctly sums up the justification for the Ku Klux Klan’s emergence as it’s depicted in Birth. Based freely on Dixon’s novels The Clansman and The Leopard’s Spots (and the play based on the former), the second half of the film depicts an ultra-radicalized Reconstruction in the wake of the Civil War. By politically disfranchising Southern whites in favor of now enfranchised blacks, the activist Republican senator Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis) places the conquered white South under “the black heel.” Thereby emboldened with far-ranging entitlements, including the right to intermarry, newly freed black male slaves revert to an animal/jungle state and seemingly want nothing more than to mate with white women. Faced with the South’s political humiliation and the rape of its womanhood, the Little Colonel (Henry B. Walthall) forms the Klan as a militant response.
Within the context of the current climate of race in the US and the still raw news of Roof’s murders, none of the speakers defends any intent or portion of the film; the all too brief discussion focuses mainly on the film’s reflection of the country’s racism then (1915), since, and now. Paul McEwan of Muhlenberg College says he’s currently less involved with the film itself, which he dislikes, than with the legacy of Birth. Author Melvyn Stokes, who chairs the discussion, apparently doesn’t just dislike Birth; he calls it an “evil film.”
Yet, as the discussion ends with a very brief Q&A, conciliatory notes arise cautiously in answers to the question, “If the film is evil, how can we enjoy it?” Clearly, someone in the audience has responded to Stokes’ dubbing Birth “evil” just minutes before and wonders what it might mean if he/she ends up enjoying such a film. Without just coming out with it, the audience member has asked the pundits: Is it okay to like this film?
Stokes attempts to answer the query first, but not in the sense of his allowing anyone to go ahead, forget yourself, forget the racism, dig the film. Stokes relates showing Birth in class and watching students, as the film begins setting up characters and locale, squirm and check their phones; he wonders how they’re going to navigate the entire 3-hour-plus silent movie, but when “the narrative kicks in,” they give it their rapt attention. “It is, after all, an action-packed film,” he admits. In other words, Stokes offers a description of how they enjoy it, by submitting to its “action.” The film, I guess, remains evil. Stokes offers no reassurances to those who have allowed pleasure to disarm their resistance to Birth’s malignancies.
But then, Linda Williams’ response does seem to grant permission – but with a condition. “Of course you should enjoy it,” she says, before adding, “you should think about it afterwards.” Where Stokes describes his students as millennials who can only be coaxed from their phones by an action-packed film, Williams speaks in a tone of parental admonishment to those less thoughtful in the audience. She’s right, of course, but she’s demanding a given. I’m not sure about millennials, but most people in the US who see this film today (and enjoy it or not) will do a lot of thinking afterwards without any finger-wagging prompting. Has any other film in the history of the medium caused more thinking? And BFI’s edition gives us a goodly, worthwhile sample of current critical thinking about Birth.
In the set’s accompanying booklet, Kevin Brownlow contributes an essay entitled “We Can Never Censor the Past,” in which he posits that the film’s attitudes toward race were not only those of Griffith and the source novels/play’s author Dixon but also those of the white population at large in 1915. Brownlow ends his piece with a brief mention of Birth’s “irresistible technique” and its far-ranging influence among later directors like Abel Gance and John Ford. Maybe, he wonders, we can admire Griffith’s pacifist anti-war stance in Birth’s first part, which after all, came solely from Griffith’s imagination, not Dixon’s.
By simply allowing Griffith and his film context, Brownlow makes solid points here, and I find myself not only agreeing with them but proceeding to enlarge upon them in this article.
But Melvyn Stokes, Reader in Film History at University College London, would likely categorize the 78-year-old film historian’s critical take on Birth as old school. Stokes’ 2008 monograph D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation: A History of the Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time spends many pages detailing the efforts of the NAACP, beginning the year of the film’s release, to either prevent showings of it or encourage local or state governments to ban it outright. Stokes presents how, as the decades slid by, and white society’s attitudes toward racial equality changed incrementally, the NAACP grew more successful in its goal to prevent public showings.
At the same time, Stokes writes, critical assessment of Birth eventually took a different turn as well, especially after the civil rights struggles of the ’50s and ’60s. Initially, and well into the 1920s, Birth had proved overwhelmingly successful with audiences, becoming a box office juggernaut of unheard-of proportions. Few of the mostly white people who initially flocked to the film understood the fuss made by the NAACP, who staged innumerable protests, and the few (white) liberal journalists who supported that organization’s activism. With few exceptions, newspaper reviews of the time had only praise for the newly released Birth, with little or no room to accommodate views on Dixon and Griffith’s take on Reconstruction history or the film’s depiction of blacks.
But by the 1960s, the civil rights movement had exposed how little had changed in the South since the Reconstruction era – especially with nation-wide coverage of incidents like the murder of Emmett Till. Resulting shifts in awareness forced the then blossoming academic discipline of film criticism to address the ugly aspects of Griffith’s film. This they did, but only, as Stokes puts it, by separating much of Birth’s racist content from its cinematic form, which they lionized as pioneering and game changing, much in the manner of Brownlow as he expresses his admiration of Griffith’s technique in the booklet.
Even in 1915, Stokes points out, the NAACP had “recognized [the film] as ‘a most clever combination of spectacular and musical art,’”5 but its contention, as the organization’s protests grew more eloquent as the years went by, was that you shouldn’t, actually couldn’t, split Griffith’s virtuosity from its message.6 Stokes’ monograph summarizes the trend, from perhaps the 1980s onward, of film criticism seemingly catching up with that necessity and thereby altering its tack. No longer could it examine and critically evaluate Griffith’s film technique apart from its treatment of racist ideology.7 But then, taking an analogy from Stokes’ text, neither could/should any film historian (or any viewer for that matter) excise those scenes of Birth mired in retrogressive racism from those portraying a broader, kinder humanism.
In 1999, the Directors Guild of America decided to rename their D. W. Griffith Award (first instituted in 1953) to the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award, explaining that Birth had “helped foster intolerable racial stereotypes” and thereby had made the director’s name inappropriate to front its award. Somewhat officially then, Griffith, once the Father of Film, had become demoted to nothing more than an inveterate racist8 owning a powerful filmmaking technique with which to poison hearts and minds.
In Fighting Back: Responding to The Birth of a Nation – the opening essay in BFI’s booklet – “film curator” Ashley Clark shares the thrust of Stokes’ book by summarizing the NAACP’s decades-long protest before closing with mention of the blasting critical response to Birth by two current black filmmakers, Spike Lee and Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky).9
More recently and perhaps in recognition of Birth’s centenary, another black filmmaker mocks the film, albeit obliquely. Premiering at Sundance in January 2016, Nate Parker’s film about the slave insurrection leader Nat Turner carries, with maximum, billboarding irony, the title Birth of a Nation.
Articulate conference member Robert McEwan contends that Birth’s 100-year survival (it’s never been out of circulation in some form) offers the rare opportunity to examine, at any given point within that century, how Americans felt about this single, uniquely controversial film over such a span of time. As Birth went from being considered solely a product of a moneymaking business, to a form of art, and, nowadays, as a form of art that is inseparable from its racist political message, societal conditions and attitudes also mutated over the decades. It’s true that the overwhelmingly negative manner in which we assess the film today provides a savvy comparison to the current state of American race relations.
As of this writing in June 2016, race relations in the US are not good – the progression of racial equality appears to have stalled, or is even revolving backward. As mentioned above, Linda Williams refers to Dylann Roof’s Charleston rampage directly, but only after deftly summarizing – using the concept of melodrama – how Griffith, in his outlandishly successful epic melodrama, had adapted, streamlined, and delivered the sectional Southern writer’s racial melodrama – and with it the old, perverse Romance of the Old South – into national consciousness.
Credibly, Williams positions Northern whites as being largely disinterested and clueless, then and now, of the realities of the Reconstruction era and thereby susceptible to Griffith’s powerful, but myth-engendered, storytelling. By virtue of widespread Northern ignorance and backward Southern regionalism, Birth extended into the 20th century the legend of a gallant antebellum South overseen by an elite of benign landowners, who had presided protectively over their slaves with kindness and forbearance. The South’s enduring myth of the Civil War and its aftermath – the Lost Cause – imagines a pastoral paradise eradicated by the war and subsequent radical Reconstruction, with the North’s deceitful manipulation of childlike blacks, who turned bestial and rapacious when freed. Implicit in Williams’ comments is that Birth’s malign vision, however now thoroughly discredited as a history lesson, had helped to promulgate a version of the Southern Lost Cause myth that is with us still. Quoting Roof’s statement, Williams ends her comments by gloomily asserting that not only Mr. Roof, but the entire country, remains engaged by this retro-Southern melodrama of race.
Yet how much of a responsibility for current racist mindsets can we offload onto the shoulders of this one, very old film? Of course Williams doesn’t go as far as to assign Birth sole blame for 21st-century race relations, but by linking the film to Roof’s rationalization for murder, she doesn’t let it off the hook, either. (Although you might wonder whether the stratum of Southern white males who really believe that blacks are primarily out to rape white women hasn’t shrunk since 1865 (or 1915).) But Williams makes a vivid point by quoting Roof’s other fear: that blacks are taking over the country. Fear of a racial other subsuming the country – whether the threat be from African Americans or immigrating Muslims – is very much in the air in sections of white America.
As BFI’s commentators rightfully decry Birth’s racist content and legacy, they constantly place it in context with an acknowledgment of Griffith’s filmmaking prowess – and this linking is necessary, because that prowess is the major factor in the film’s initial popularity and, finally, its endurance. Yet except for Brownlow’s essay, there’s little discussion in BFI’s edition as to what the director’s technique actually achieves throughout, other than pointing out the somewhat inevitable exhilaration provided by the Klan’s climactic ride to save the besieged defenders of chivalrous Southern rectitude.10
Any socially aware American viewer, in feeling the excitement of the Klan’s ride, must pay the price of thinking about it. That is, in the wake of the film, he or she would have to consider what it means to be a 21st-century US citizen cheering – however inward and silently – a horse-mounted army of white-sheeted vigilantes that calls to mind repulsive but culturally embedded images of massed Klan marches like the one in Washington, DC, in 1928.
Today, shown elsewhere than in the US, the film’s race to the rescue would likely be received differently, to say the least, and with less post-screening soul-searching. In the discussion Williams recalls a recent, non-controversial public showing of Birth in Italy – no protests feared there – where the audience sprang to its feet at the Klan’s ride and gave it an ovation. In the US, you’d have to screen the film to an audience of white supremacists to get that kind of reaction.
Italy has its own societal woes, of course, and most likely within these its own varieties of racism, but it doesn’t share America’s unique racial legacy. So, if a few of their citizens are willing to take in a screening of a 191-minute, century-old silent film and end up enjoying it without self-examination, it’s because they need not process, as any US viewer must, how they experience Birth’s racial polemic. What we must necessarily view as hateful, demagogic propaganda, a non-US audience can accept as the background for a tale of epic sweep in which racist dynamics are merely fuel for the film’s thrill machine.
Early filmmakers the world over, not just Griffith, understood the need for an “action-packed” story. Facing degradation or death, young women must be rescued, and as the pulse of the narrative quickens on the way to its final payoff, so does the viewer’s. For time immemorial novels, plays, ancient myth – Perseus reaches the enchained Andromeda just in time – had set entertainment methods. By 1915, Griffith’s already finely honed filmmaking skills provided plenty of such excitement in what we now must consider the first feature-length film to exploit with such power this ageless manner of storytelling – of gathering tension, then releasing it.
But if The Birth of a Nation had been, during its 100 years before us, simply a delivery system for its melodramatic thrills, or for a racist ideology, we’d not be discussing it now. The film survives as something far more complex and compelling than either of these elements would allow. Griffith, man and artist, was complicated, too. Placing the confusion of Griffith’s ambitions, inner struggles, and intuitive vision alongside the ideological and aesthetic turbulence of his film only deepens our perceptions of it.
As reported by Stokes, Griffith was imagining how to film the Klan’s ride as soon as he’d read Dixon’s play and said his adaptation would be “‘the chase movie to end all chase movies. Instead of saving one Nell … his ride was to save a nation.’”11 These quotes might sum up one of Griffith’s guiding aims and greatest strengths – his belief in and (then) unparalleled skill at providing cinematic thrills – and one of his recurring goals and weaknesses – his drive to embed his melodramatic thrills within a broadly defined context of history. Interviewed, Griffith might describe his historical films as “researched” and “accurate,” when, in considering the latter qualification, they are usually anything but. At the time of filming Birth – and its follow-up Intolerance (1916) – Griffith believed cinema should teach as well as entertain; he saw a future where historical films like Birth would replace history books in libraries and homes.12
Any close viewing of The Birth of a Nation becomes a study in the film’s, and its maker’s, polarities, and here we have two impulses – one to entertain, one to educate – that, in Griffith’s films anyway, are often an awkward fit. The narrative Griffith has chosen to adapt already comes with enough embedded dualisms to worry over: the Old South and Reconstruction; the North and the South; the Northern family and the Southern family; the free then oppressed whites and the enslaved then freed blacks. As Griffith attempts to contain this vast canvas of colliding events and ideologies – with all their political, social, and individual forces in play – which of the dueling impulses motivates him the most? What excites him more, I wonder, the chase to save Nell or the chase to save a nation?
The Biograph short included in BFI’s package, The Rose of Kentucky, may not fully answer this question, but it might nudge us toward concluding that Griffith thought firstly of saving Nell. In The Rose of Kentucky – not one of the filmmaker’s better Biographs – the Klan are featured as villains, not the good guys. There are no African Americans present, but the hero, a white plantation owner, must shoot a couple of them to save the day (and the woman). After the gunfight, those Klan members still standing agree with the hero that they’ve done wrong and promise they’ll now go straight. In his video discussion of Birth and Dixon’s fiction, Melvyn Stokes conjectures that the appearance of the Klan here reflects its later 20th-century iteration, a form of the organization that neither Dixon nor Griffith approved of (the novelist called its members “renegades”).
Their aversion to the later Klan is one thing, but the movement’s second blossoming didn’t occur until 1915,13 and The Rose of Kentucky appeared in 1911, leading us to conjecture that Griffith, having assigned them as rogue villains that year, made an about face and filmed them as avenging saviors of Southern honor a mere three years later, partially (but not only) because he’d found a property with a good clinching climax.
To give an audience a damn good race to the rescue was certainly Griffith’s priority, here and elsewhere in his career, but the director seemed hard-wired to want historical films like Birth to simultaneously, along with the thrills, operate as agents of enlightenment or of cultivation. To him this was how motion pictures entered the realm of high-toned works of art, those, that is, deemed worth of enduring, unlike those that merely offered coarse entertainment.
But however Griffith may have had foresight in his view of film as an art form, he was utterly delusional about feature film – especially his own – providing any kind of fine-toothed, objective education in something as profoundly complex, and regionally contested, as American history. Of all his films, as we view them now, Birth suffers the most from this delusion – because with it he had so squarely hit the nerve in the American body politic most sensitive to touch since the era of the civil rights movement – the racial divide that arose from a fledgling country’s economic reliance on the practice of slavery.
Entering the Griffith classroom, you occasionally encounter the blackboard, where the filmmaker has scrawled a moment in history he wishes to force-feed us. Sprinkled throughout the film, these take the form of brief segments labeled as “facsimiles” that, based, tableau-like, on paintings or vintage photographs, illustrate, mostly, important Civil War events, such as Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, which features Donald Crisp as a cigar-chomping Ulysses S. Grant. Playing his own role of a responsible educator, Griffith always presents an intertitle citing the source from which a given facsimile is drawn. In one Reconstruction era facsimile, however – showing barefooted, clownishly costumed blacks eating fried chicken and generally behaving badly as newly elected members of the South Carolina legislature – the filmmaker appears to misleadingly qualify the veracity of its source by citing something called “The Columbia State.” According to Kevin Brownlow in his BFI essay, the sequence’s imagery was based on that of a political cartoon. Griffith omits this detail.
The best “facsimile” doesn’t play like the others. The remarkable re-enactment of Lincoln’s assassination takes place in a studiously rendered replication of the Ford Theater interior, with actors on the stage engaged in a performance of what might be an accurate approximation of a setting of Our American Cousin. Because we witness it via the point of view of Elsie and Phil Stoneman (Lilian Gish and Elmer Clifton), the sight of John Wilkes Booth (Raoul Walsh) leaping from the Lincolns’ box onto the stage (with Walsh credibly miming the breaking of Booth’s ankle) has a spooky feel of you-are-there realism. It’s as if we’re seeing the actual filmed artifact upon which Griffith would have based a facsimile of the event had one magically existed. By placing two of the story’s characters within the reenacted event, Griffith takes it beyond a heavy-handed schoolroom, illustrational stance.
But the filmmaker’s image-making, which chronically achieves mythopoetic dimensions, is a bracingly effective delivery system with both positive dramatic results on one hand and negative ideological backfires on the other, and each of these are almost neatly divided between the film’s two parts. History lessons based on regional legends are one thing, but an entertainment vehicle, as successive generations judge it, can suffer even more from sustaining a political message, especially one that goes hand in hand with that spurious history. Seeing the entertainment possibilities within Dixon’s enflamed narrative, Griffith was suddenly at arms against his own better angels. Once Lincoln is shot and Reconstruction begins in part two, Griffith’s adaptation of Dixon’s ugly sectarian viewpoint comes at us with as much conviction and power as part one’s deeply felt vision of war and what it does to people.
In part two’s treatment of the country’s most devastating schism, the Reconstruction era, you encounter Griffith’s divided self as a dramatist. Griffith’s earliest creative struggles were those of an aspiring man of the theater. As a young man he began a career as an actor before the turn of the 20th century, then, shortly thereafter, tried his hand at playwriting. He failed in both disciplines, but his experiences in both gave him a grounding in the mechanics and devices of 19th-century theater that never left him. Nearly all the films he made contained examples of them. Into Griffith’s cinematic mix, these brought melodramatic plot structures, denouements – double weddings in Birth and Way Down East – and sometimes the broad gestural acting styles that had partly been a time-out-of-mind method to project large emotions to an audience from the distance of a stage.
Yet Griffith learned early on in his career – in his short films for Biograph – that motion picture acting, as captured by the camera’s lens, must rely less on gesture and exclamatory facial expressions (and in silent film, none at all on theater acting’s modulating speech). Instead, in an intimate, naturalistic exchange, it emanates from within the actor, who can project emotion, or even a delicate process of thought, through the eyes and onto the film’s emulsion. From over a century of the movies, it’s a mode of performance that’s second nature to us, and one that, even in 1915, Griffith understood and produced with skill and consistency.
Griffith and Thomas Dixon
Conveniently, if we’d like to compartmentalize its effects, the stagy acting that appears dated, even outright ridiculous, occurs mostly within Griffith’s adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s fiction, much of which takes place in the second part of Birth. Suddenly it’s as if you’re watching old-timey theatrics from a forgotten play – such as a stage adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
And mention of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is pertinent to the genesis of The Birth of a Nation. Dixon, as a Southern white supremacist, had been so offended by Stowe’s novel that he planned a trilogy of novels to counter it, or actually nullify it, a frustrated ambition, of course. In these – and in the play he developed from the second, The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan – he offered a deliberate racial reversal of Stowe’s polemic. Instead of the blacks abused and victimized as property in Stowe’s antebellum South, Dixon wrote of whites being subjugated and brutalized by freed blacks during Reconstruction.14
Once taken as a firebrand call to reform when published in 1852, the novel and play of Uncle Tom’s Cabin became so embedded in US culture by the 20th century that a Little Rascals short in the 1930s could ridicule its sentimentality, creaky stage mechanics (most memorably, the ice floe sequence and Eva’s ascent to heaven) and crude villain/victim dialectic.
Griffith had likely been exposed to stage versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin early and often – not to mention 1903 and 1910 silent film adaptations – and he probably took their theatrics quite seriously. The ice-floe/waterfall sequence in Way Down East may well have been inspired by Eliza’s escape across the ice that he’d seen in one of those plays or films. Beyond Dixon’s vitriolic designs on Stowe’s themes, the melodramatic hypertension of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is all to the point when discussing Griffith’s descent into similar theatricality in Birth’s second half – perhaps the most bizarre display of it in his career in its simplistic melodrama of villainy (Radical Reconstruction) versus victim (the defeated South).
But some of the worst excesses of such theatricality crop up in part one, in a group of scenes involving Austin Stoneman’s housekeeper/mistress, Lydia Brown (Mary Alden). These sequences set the stage for part two’s melange of sex, violence, and racist comeuppance.
Dixon and Griffith intend Austin Stoneman to be a thinly veiled version of the historical Thaddeus Stevens, an activist member of the House of Representatives during the Civil War and Reconstruction, who did indeed have a mulatto housekeeper named Lydia with whom he was rumored to have had a sexual relationship.15 Whatever role this relationship might have played in Stevens’ radical directives during Reconstruction, the fictional Stoneman’s dalliance with Lydia poisons his mind to the extent that he’s blind to the evils of miscegenation, which prompts him to encourage legislation allowing interracial marriage in the South (or at least in South Carolina), a bit of lawmaking that I’m assuming is a fantasy born in Dixon’s fiction.
Sex, don’t we know it, figures big-time in Griffith’s Reconstruction. As played by the corked-up Alden, Lydia’s growing sense of sexual and political entitlement in part one makes for challenging viewing; naturalistic acting goes right out the window as, dropping to the floor and tearing her dress off one shoulder, she writhes with erotic distemper after being treated with contempt by visiting senator William Seward. Lydia comes hard-wired with entitlement because, as a mulatto, she is born of corrupted seed and has entered the world debased. Alden ramps her performance up with the kind of semaphoric gesture – even eye-rolling – that plays as ludicrous today.
We meet The Clansman’s Silas Lynch in part two of Birth. As a politicized mulatto and male counterpart to Lydia, he lusts after Northern congressman Austin Stoneman’s daughter, Elsie (Lilian Gish), a white woman he feels entitled to marry if only to satisfy that lust.16 Lynch (George Siegmann), acting as Austin Stoneman’s henchman under the guise of Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina, brutalizes the entire town of Piedmont with a marauding mass of black militia, while simultaneously chasing the hysterical Elsie Stoneman around his lodgings. Although placed in power by Stoneman, Silas Lynch inherits a baseline of evil via the dreaded interbreeding of whites and blacks.
Under its burnt cork, the most Siegmann’s performance projects is a kind of manic glee as he anticipates sex with Elsie via a hastily arranged “forced marriage,” to which Elsie reacts with unrestrained horror. Since Silas Lynch operates not as a character but as a symbol, there’s no opportunity for Siegmann to give a camera-friendly performance. He’s a fraudulent, stagy presence throughout, but never more so than when the story reaches its climax. Here Lynch blossoms into the kind of stock melodramatic villain who places a virtuous heroine in physical danger because she refuses to submit to his lecherous demands; but instead of a lashing to the railroad tracks, Elsie faces a legalized rape that looks to arrive as precipitously as any oncoming locomotive.
Dixon’s fiction offers more than one actual rape, but Griffith, for the purposes of his grand rescue finale, only allows its threat, which has the effect of softening Dixon’s dedicated polemic by making the film adaptation concerned more about entertainment than avenging Stowe’s book and Reconstruction, a need not shared by the average moviegoer, even in 1915.
In The Clansman, a Southern mother and daughter are attacked and raped in their home by a small gang of blacks, whereupon they both commit suicide rather than live in shame. In Birth, however, it’s Flora Cameron (Mae Marsh), the young sister of the Little Colonel, who commits suicide – but not because she’s been raped. Inspired by state legislation that legalizes interracial marriage, a renegade black militiaman named Gus (Walter Long) naturally assumes that the first adolescent white girl he sees – Flora – will want to mate with him. But like his Silas Lynch, Griffith’s Gus wants to marry a white woman, not simply violate her where she stands (as Dixon’s does), and, in spite of chasing her, shows some physical forbearance. (At least he shows more than Lynch, who binds and gags the recalcitrant Elsie.)
Gus proposes marriage timidly – he seems a bit mentally challenged – but at the very suggestion of such a thing, Flora, who’s been surprised by him as she’s out in the woodland feeding a favorite squirrel, runs off in a panic through the pine barrens with Gus close on her heels. Catching up with her on a rocky promontory, Gus assures Flora he has no intention of hurting her, but intuiting, supposedly, that Gus can only act on his race’s bestial impulses, she jumps to her death rather than submit to them.
Given that Gus never shows a clear intention to rape, is it possible to view Flora’s reaction as overreacting? Granted, Flora is a sheltered, adolescent girl and Gus, a large man with something on his mind, should not have run after her, but, still, the forced tragic solution to her dilemma seems dramatically overripe.
Flora’s death inspires Ben Cameron to form the Klan. Decidedly, the War is not over, the Lost Cause persists, and so does Dixon’s regressive polemic in the film. But it’s the girl’s leap through “the opal gates of death” that provides the fuel for Birth’s exciting climax, the very element that inspired Griffith to adapt Dixon’s fiction in the first place. In spite of her occasional, jittery overacting, Mae Marsh is very affecting as Flora, and, as much as her rash act may seem silly and dramatically retrograde today, her character’s sudden death remains shocking – a sucker punch to our gut-level sympathy with the character. As she comes to age in part one of Birth – and is first to greet the Little Colonel in his homecoming from the war – we’re made to feel as protective toward little Flora as does her older brother.
Thus, if, like mine, your defenses are down, Ben Cameron’s rage – very well projected as it’s underplayed by Walthall – can feel quite righteous, which leads to a uniquely strange, two-level viewing experience as Cameron hastily conceives the Night Riders to enact justice upon Gus. (Conveniently, by the time Cameron and his compadres have taken the Scottish Oath of Klan brotherhood, Gus has killed a white man in a bar fight and now carries indefensible guilt for that on top of the unbearable crime of harassing a white girl.).
Within minutes of screen time, Gus is caught, “tried,” and, though not shown, executed by the Klan. Swept along by Griffith’s splendidly visceral cross cutting, you might not pause to consider the abhorrence of the proceedings until the mounted, robed riders toss Gus’s corpse onto Silas Lynch’s front porch like a sack of meat. It’s perhaps the ugliest moment in the film – the real climax of the story’s racial hatred – and for anyone who attempts to admire the film, the toughest to negotiate. And it’s a climactic juncture that Griffith encourages us to forget in the gathering heat of the final rescue.
Why is it then that, until that final, sordid gesture, Gus’s capture and murder can operate as gripping entertainment even as another part of our brain realizes we’re watching a lynching? There’s the excitement generated by the action, yes, but another distancing element is Gus’s appearance as a black man. If possible, it’s even less convincing than Lynch’s. Under his makeup, Walter Long remains resolutely Caucasian, as of course do all the white actors playing supporting roles as African Americans.
It’s understandable why Griffith never considered casting blacks in these roles. As Kevin Brownlow points out in his essay, blacks – at least in the South – could not legally share the stage with white women; additionally, in the theater (and by analogy on the screen), the blacking-up of white actors had to be obvious in its artificiality, much like what you’d have seen in minstrelsy where the effect was played for song, dance, and comedy.
But beyond acknowledging these period strictures and conventions, it’s illuminating to imagine the difference in the Flora/Gus sequence and in the lynching scene if Gus had been played by an actual African American. As these scenes stand, the black-faced Walter Long places a scrim of deliberate, theatrical fakery over the action – until Gus’s body hits the porch.
But put a large, muscular black man in Lang’s place and suddenly Gus’s actions toward Flora – and their consequences for him – take a mighty leap toward a confrontational reality that Dixon might have appreciated seeing, but for which movie audiences across the country were not prepared. Flocking to the biggest entertainment phenomenon of the decade, they wanted a grand, immersive evening of diversion and gratification, not coming face to face with their country’s darkest aberration.
In his monograph, Stokes conjectures that, if some African Americans managed to see Birth upon its release in 1915 and, like the white audience, were entertained, even awed, by the experience – despite the film’s depiction of blacks – it may have been because the sight of whites playing blacks “emphasize[d] the film’s character as fictionalized entertainment.”17 Stokes goes on to wonder if blacks may have discounted the relevance of the events they saw on screen because they depicted those from a distant past.
In spite of its action-laced pace – there are no longueurs in The Birth of a Nation – the pervasive silliness of part two’s dramatic contrivances may also have made its over-the-top racism easier for yesterday’s cineaste to frame as bygone entertainment, in that what’s dated and/or hateful is all placed intriguingly within innovative, ahead-of-its-time filmmaking. For this writer, the absurdity of part two’s dramaturgy still has this effect.
And so much of the filmmaking plays exactly right. Griffith knew how, with maximum authenticity, to dress his sets, stage battle scenes, direct a thrilling parade of gallant Confederate soldiery, but when, for example, he stocks interior scenes with liveried house slaves that look like nothing but minstrel clowns about to buck and wing, he loses his grip on the sobriety of his “race to save a nation” along with his “Nell.”
Of course, there are two Nells to save. In a two-pronged mission, the Klan rides first to extricate Elsie from Lynch’s clutches while others arrive at a remote and tiny cabin surrounded by a raging tide of rabid black militia. Here the victims/defenders are a diverse group: among them, the cabin’s inhabitants (a pair of cashiered-out Union soldiers), Phil Stoneman, Dr. Cameron, the Faithful Ones (slaves loyal to former owners), and, most preciously, a daughter of the South, Margaret Cameron. In this grand birthing of the new nation, Yankees, Southerners, and faithful blacks unite to stave off the deceived, misled Negro attackers, who appear to have a gross advantage in guns and numbers. With the situation becoming ever more dire, Dr. Cameron has his pistol readied over the head of Margaret, willing to kill his daughter, if need be, to save her from defilement.
But once securely in the hands of the night riders, all move swiftly to a victory parade through the main street of Piedmont (the rescued women in front). Griffith’s coda comes next, and it’s a tonally mixed affair in which we first see a sour vignette showing the next local election where a row of mounted Klan in full regalia scare off skittish Negroes from voting.18 Then we have the melodrama’s cadence – a satisfying double honeymoon of the principal lovers – which also serves as the symbolic restored unity of North and South.
Topping it all is a utopian vision, seemingly sprung from the mind of Ben Cameron (the Klan’s Grand Dragon, in case we’ve forgotten) of a world without war. Here religious kitsch invades the filmmaker’s pacifist plea. Overseen by an awkwardly superimposed image of The Christ that floats like a bad Sunday school memory, happy folk (in antique dress) celebrate the joys of peace as they prance about in a high-toned, formal landscape. We’re not surprised to see that this happy place appears to exclude African Americans.
It’s a poor image, less expressive of Griffith’s truest intentions as an artist than an example of a forced, uplifting sentiment from a self-promoter reaching for prestige and recognition. It’s also possible that Griffith wished to distance himself a bit more from the darkness inherent in the narrative he derived from Dixon’s novels. Both author and filmmaker forge a new “nation” as the two reconciled North/South couples marry, but Griffith wants to raise the endgame higher with his final image of a pacifism ordained by Jesus. The final sequence of Intolerance offers a similar pacifist imagining, in which soldiers drop their guns on the battlefield and cannons go silent, children play with flowers, and a big cross imprints itself in the sky.
In Birth, Griffith’s anti-war sentiments struggle for prominence over those crying for the survival of the Lost Cause, something I’m betting Thomas Dixon cared a lot about. The filmmaker’s pacifist stance seems more sincere, better expressed, and certainly better integrated in the battle sequences of part one – these to be discussed later – but in part two, the sugary religiosity of the anti-war coda only acts to gum up the exhilaration provided by the Klan’s victory and the concluding warmth brought on by the weddings. Why not send the audience home gratified with these two clinching wrap-ups?
The filmmaker’s confusion of intent in part two – and its uneasy squaring of entertainment values – has raised other questions. There’s little doubt that Griffith revered and treasured both the legend of the Old South on one hand and the Klan as guardians of Southern honor and womanhood on the other, but did he truly feel the need, like Dixon, to proselytize these beliefs and ideals, or, for him, was the greater need to make a successful, important film? And in that regard, did he realize that too much fidelity in adapting Dixon’s didactic – and not universally popular – fictions might prove problematic for moviegoers nationwide, even in 1915?
Sharing the Responsibility: Selznick’s Gone With the Wind
In 1936, when David O. Selznick bought the film rights to Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind – before it was published – he knew full well what the public was prepared for, and what they would consider a grand night’s entertainment. And by then, the realities of Reconstruction, fully disregarded by an indifferent nation at large, were even further in the past.
The studio system, an industrial, factory approach to moviemaking, had been in place at least since MGM’s emergence in 1925, killing off independent filmmaking for decades to come. And Griffith had been an independent, more so than Selznick, who certainly attempted to act like one, but who was held in place by what the American public expected, especially in the adaptation of a nationally revered novel, which needed to be, as a completed film, a nearly one-to-one equivalent of Mitchell’s text.
In 1915, I imagine very few of Dixon’s readers anticipated a faithful film adaptation of his fiction, but, regardless, D. W. Griffith filmed what and how he wanted because, as Richard Schickel has observed, he believed he controlled and molded the tastes of the moviegoing public. Whether such an attitude, in 1915 anyway, was hubris or not is up for debate, but when buying the rights to GWTW, the seasoned, studio-trained Selznick understood, in spite of his headstrong ways, that public taste ruled the movies, not vice versa.
As he began work on Birth, Griffith believed he was still inventing what a movie could and should be, and while entertainment was uppermost in this burgeoning definition, Griffith the pioneer, the self-proclaimed cinema artiste, had those other qualifications in mind when imagining an epic historical film like Birth: education, edification, and the truisms of history.19
Adapting another book whose Southern characters are caught in the same mesh of war and defeat as The Birth of a Nation, Selznick played it safe. Birth may have been a cautionary tale for him. Although Mitchell’s romantic historical brought the author a Pulitzer instead of notoriety, the producer, before commencing principal photography, vetted the screenplay with black leaders to eliminate possible offenses. Among these was reportedly the use of the “n” word – although it seems unlikely a major film of its time would use the term anyway.20
More intently considered, perhaps, was the novel’s detailed depiction of Reconstruction inequities toward the white population. Mitchell’s text views the KKK as having been the necessary response to Northern oppression, and puts Rhett Butler in a Yankee jail because he’s killed a black man who was being “uppity to a white woman.” The adaptation smooths these sharp edges, reducing the injustices of Reconstruction to brief vignettes featuring carpetbaggers and scalawags and placing Rhett in jail because of war profiteering. The KKK is never mentioned by name.
In the novel, Scarlett O’Hara (Vivian Leigh), like Flora, is threatened with rape after the war, but the film adjusts this sequence so that it becomes a plot point not meant to underline the horrors Southern women must face from newly freed, oversexed blacks. In both book and film, Scarlett’s attack arises from her carelessness as a too headstrong female (having ridden her carriage unaccompanied past a dangerous “shantytown”), but in Selznick’s adaptation her attacker is a white hobo, intent first on robbing but then on taking lustful advantage of the incautiously solitary Scarlett, who faints at the prospect. Scarlett’s white attacker is accompanied by a black man, who merely aids and abets by controlling Scarlett’s horse – like a servant or slave – while the other salaciously goes in on the unconscious woman. In the film as edited, the black’s participation is hardly noticeable.21
In the novel the sequence is far more loaded. Although the poor white is still in charge of the attack, it’s the black man, under the guise of robbing her, who goes to sexually assault Scarlett, and his actions are a more explicit attempt at rape, with some bodice ripping actually accomplished before Scarlett is rescued.
As in the novel, Ashley and other Southern gentleman see womanhood threatened, decide it’s time to clean out the shantytown, and ride out into the night. But their actions (not shown onscreen) only suggest a disguised version of a covert Klan mission. In the novel, it’s called for what it is, a Klan operation, and was likely high on the list as a provocative element to be elided for the film. Side-stepping all specific mention of the KKK, these events only move the plot forward and add to the viewer’s perception of Scarlett’s net worth as an independent woman, which continues to seesaw up and down all the way to Rhett’s “I don’t give a damn.”
Griffith, too, had a sense, if one falling short of realities, that some of Dixon’s source material was inflammatory; he eliminated the rapes, for example, and he doesn’t show Gus’s execution, whatever that might have involved. But Selznick reflected his time as much as Griffith did his and went further to soften racist elements. Born of Lithuanian Jewish extraction in Pennsylvania, Selznick is said to have had liberal attitudes regarding African Americans, while Atlanta native Mitchell, unlike Mr. Dixon, had had no intention of using her fiction to settle old scores with Harriet Beecher Stowe.
In her novel, and the film, the events of the Civil War and Reconstruction function more as dramatic hurtles over which Scarlett O’Hara must jump in her run for survival than the propagandistic signposts of regional racist belief that Griffith mixes in with his 19th-century melodramatic stagings in Birth’s part two. The film of GWTW places its focus squarely on its (somewhat anti-) heroine, not the white South under the black boot.
But as much as the film Gone With the Wind may appear to distance itself from The Birth of a Nation, it still talks the same talk of Southern victimhood. Indeed, Selznick’s GWTW, as much or more as Birth, helped extend the legend of the Old South and the exquisite pathos of its demise – all of which Mitchell’s novel had honored wholeheartedly – into the middle of the 20th century and beyond. The film also retains Mitchell’s version of slavery as the same beneficent institution we see in Birth.
After the grand proclamation of GWTW’s title and over a slow, actually quite poignant, wordless choral rendering of Dixie arranged by Max Steiner, a banner of text unfurls: “There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind …”22
All this sounds nonsensically misty-eyed now – maybe even a bit half-hearted – but, with all the Technicolor extravagance Selznick could summon, it’s what the film immerses us in for the first half hour or so: a lovely somnolent vision of old plantation life. A scene where prepubescent slave girls fan the recumbent white flesh of Southern child-women as they take their postprandial nap goes down a lot sweeter than it should. When Ashley (Leslie Howard) leads Melanie (Olivia de Havilland) from a darkened room onto a balcony overlooking a sunlit lawn of brightly festooned, promenading guests, you’re dazzled by the finely calibrated effect. Selznick’s Old South is much more pumped with extras and excess than the comparatively modest version of it Griffith gives us in Birth.
All of this scene – William Cameron Menzies’ production design, Leslie Howard’s measured patrician delivery, and Steiner’s wistful underscore – could make you, back in the day, forget the maudlin resolve in the opening title quoted above, prompting us to mourn the vanishing of this society of knights and ladies, of master and slave. Now, in 2016 – however you might have swallowed them in 1939 or 1960 – you can’t help but choke, if briefly, on those three words, master and slave, in the context of regretting their passing.
All the black characters in GWTW are played by actual African Americans, yet as characterized by Mitchell and placed on the screen, you could see them as merely upgraded versions of Griffith’s nameless “faithful ones,” played by black-faced white actors. Thus, on one hand, like Birth, GWTW extends what is likely another retro-blurring of how slaves had actually been treated in the antebellum South. But within this mirage of the Old South, the ’39 film offers a considerable advancement in allowing black actors – especially Hattie McDaniel, whose detailed and moving performance overrode her part’s stereotyping (and garnered for her an Academy Award) – to come across as actual human beings. Where Griffith’s faithful ones, including a rotund Mammy figure, act in shadows and in long shots, McDaniel shares scenes with the principals upfront and throughout, and often in close-up.
Currently book and film still enjoy wide-ranging popularity. Any surviving repertory theater can screen GWTW without fear of angry demonstrations. In 2011, Scribner issued a 75th anniversary edition of Mitchell’s novel, with a new preface by author Pat Conroy, who claims that GWTW inspired him to become a writer. How many high-profile filmmakers today would voice the same soft spot for Griffith’s film? And in 2016, there are more people watching GWTW on Blu-ray than BFI’s new edition of Birth.
As gargantuan an experience as GWTW was (and still is) – with an indefinable magic emanating from the performances of Vivian Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland, and, equally, Hattie McDaniel – it was (and still is) “just a movie,” a studio product. Griffith knew he was involved in a business venture, but envisioned his Birth as not just an object of commerce but also as a work worthy of breathing the same rarefied air of great art. Selznick may have imagined a long run for GWTW but not necessarily immortality. By the 21st century, both films may well have achieved something like eternal life in the world of cinema, but Griffith was the one aiming for it from the beginning, for ill (hateful and spurious history lessons) and good (human verities emerging from struggle).
The Camerons at Home
With an intertitle expressing the same sentiment as GWTW’s opening banner, Griffith’s part one introduces us to the home of the Cameron family, who live a peaceful antebellum existence in the fictional town of Piedmont, South Carolina. But Birth’s intertitle is much pithier and less high-flown than Selznick’s purple text; simply put, life for the Camerons “runs in a quaintly way that is to be no more.” No cavaliers or knights are mentioned, but neither are masters and slaves.
In these opening scenes of Birth (after a brief preamble showing the introduction of slavery to America as “the seed of disunion”), slaves are – unlike Mammy in GWTW – matter-of-factly in the background, with their masters in the foreground. The first half hour or so of the film is an introduction of two families: one Southern, the Camerons; one Northern, the Stonemans. This is the setup that Stokes reported had sent his students to checking their smart phones. But for anyone paying attention these initial scenes show Griffith at his best, as they set the foundation for the narrative sweep of part one. Until the evils of Reconstruction arrive, the story functions, not as a melodrama, but as something closer to a drama in a classic sense, in which individual lives and families surrender to forces greater than themselves.
In the first scene, Billy Bitzer’s camera is in observation mode, taking in key members of the Cameron family as they relax on their front porch. Here the performances are at their most naturalistic. Top-hatted and dressed like a dandy, Ben Cameron arrives, chats with a passing carriage, and still smoking a cigar, plays with his little sister, Flora, while the master of the house, Dr. Cameron (Spottiswoode Aitken), reads the paper with a cat on his lap and puppies at his feet. The elder sister Margaret (the prepossessingly beautiful Miriam Cooper) is a serene, steady presence amongst the group, as she is for the rest of the film. Not half the actress Lilian Gish was, Cooper in Birth might be seen as faring better than the lovely 19-year-old Gish, who as Elsie must scream, faint, and generally project a defenseless maiden’s hysteria in part two.
Griffith excelled at scaled-down dramas centering on domestic life, as seen in the troubled integration of the victimized Anna Moore into the Bartlett family in Way Down East (1920), or the daily threat of starvation in post-WWI Germany to the Polish family in Isn’t Life Wonderful? (1924).
A long shot has established the Cameron family manse on a dusty, small-town street, which appears the home shares with neighboring houses on adjacent lots. How this apparently densely settled street with its smallish lots allows for the Cameron plantation to open up in the back to slave quarters and acres of cotton fields is never adequately allowed continuity. Similarly, the front of the Camerons’ house, although parading a row of substantial Ionic columns, appears to be a modest affair that barely allows for a second story, yet entering it, we see a lavish sitting parlor with a high ceiling accommodating a second floor, reached by a central grand staircase.
Even with their grand staircase, the Camerons appear to be living within less than aristocratic means – unlike the planters in GWTW – and there is no grand barbecue planned when the Stoneman brothers arrive for a visit. It’s all very low key as the Northerners are shown about the slave quarters and the cotton fields, which gives the film an opportunity to insert displays of benevolence and good cheer between the Camerons and their slaves. These self-congratulatory demonstrations of affection between owner and slave – so important to the film as a reveal of the arcadia soon to be lost – are mercifully brief but long enough to elicit groans, or laughs, from a contemporary audience.
As the war engulfs both families, there are young people in love, but no love triangle. Part one has its climax – the aforementioned assassination of Lincoln – and as for the disaster of the Civil War itself, in terms of massive, wholesale death on both sides, Griffith underlines it with images of scattered corpses, some piled on top of each other, in the wake of the battle of Petersburg – these shots being very much reminiscent of corpse-littered battlegrounds captured by photographer Matthew Brady.
Additionally, to bring the film’s characters up close to the fighting, there are two sequences in which the younger and elder sons of each family meet in battle. In contrast to the Brady-like images, these scenes are couched in the theatrical, sentimental device made popular by 19th-century Romantic fiction, in which separated and far-flung relatives, lovers, or friends meet in highly coincidental and often ironic circumstances. In such meetings, emotional coals theretofore banked in distance and longing suddenly flare.
In the first, the Union’s Tod Stoneman (Bobby Harron), fleeing a skirmish, encounters a wounded Confederate sprawled at his feet. Just before finishing him off with his bayonet, he recognizes the soldier as his Southern friend Duke Cameron (Maxfield Stanley) and joyfully greets him. But when Tod receives a bullet in the back, the reunion is cut short. Falling prostrate alongside his friend and with his face nestled against Duke’s, the sight may suggest the homoerotic to contemporary audiences, especially as Tod reaches, just before he expires, to tenderly cup the jaw of the already departed Duke.
Stepping back, though, we know the image is intended as only one of a close male friendship, a closeness, one imagines, more acceptable among men of the 19th century than those of today, and Griffith – something of a 19th-century man himself – doesn’t shy from picturing it. The sequence stays in the mind as something authentic to Civil War-era social sensibilities. It’s important to keep in mind that Griffith was born a mere ten years after Appomattox and two years before the end of Reconstruction, with a father a full colonel in the Confederate States Army, who, in Griffith family folklore anyway, was wounded five times in the war.23
Later in the film, during, as an intertitle puts it, “the last gray days of the Confederacy,” another mirroring happenstance occurs when the elder brothers of each family meet in the battle of Petersburg. Ben Cameron’s spirited but hopeless charge against a well-defended Union entrenchment is one of the best-ever filmed visualizations of the adrenaline-rush of combat, especially when the camera, for just a few seconds, tracks backward as Ben Cameron runs toward it with the Confederate standard, which, with death-defying fervor, he plunges into a cannon’s open maw. After this desperate gesture, the wounded Little Colonel collapses into the arms of a Yankee officer, who just happens to be his best friend, Phil Stoneman.
Once again, Victorian sentimentality is layered all over the pathos of two friends meeting as enemies, with Stoneman holding the limp unconscious Cameron in a kind of battlefield pietà. Like the image of the younger brothers, the brief visual of Ben and Phil in a pose of fraternal ardor comes ready-made to garner the same kind of response you’d get from hearing an old Civil War song, like “Break the News to Mother” or “For the Dear Old Flag I Die.” The sentimental, period flavor of these images meshes surprisingly well with the realism of Griffith’s battle scenes, perhaps partly because it was the kind of war in which two friends might indeed meet on the battlefield.
The dramatic plea of these battleground meetings may have the flavor of 19th-century theater or fiction, but Griffith largely keeps part one free of what Linda Williams, as quoted in Stokes’ monograph, calls “linking melodramatic form to the dialectic of racial pathos and antipathy.”24 The heart of this film beats truest within the modest confines of the Camerons’ front porch, which, as it faces that small-town street, begins and ends Birth’s first part.
Born on a Kentucky farm in 1875, D. W. Griffith was intensely nostalgic for his rural childhood, and many of his better films reflect memories of it. As Schickel notes, “whenever he turned to poverty, to street life, to the dusty roads of remembered childhood, the films would suddenly ring with truth.”25 As Birth begins, the Camerons are anything but poor, but they hum with close-knit affection, which, as war and Reconstruction affords them little but death and poverty, allows them to survive. The survival of families, through whatever storm or strife, is one of Griffith’s great themes. Whenever the filmmaker explores it, he’s generous with detail and nuance.
When Ben Cameron returns from the war, fragile and weak from his wounds and a long recuperation in a Northern hospital, he approaches the homestead with what appears to be trepidation. We see him, in a medium shot, on the sidewalk in the midday sun with the street empty and no life stirring from the house. As he reaches the porch, however, Flora suddenly emerges, greeting him alone because the family, fully aware he’s just outside, have planned it that way. They don’t want to overwhelm him. Confronting each other, brother and sister are reserved and tentative. Flora grins, but Ben just stares. It’s been a full four years since he’s seen his kid sister, who has since grown to nubile maturity, and he appears abashed at the development.
The siblings are reduced to commenting on the poor state of each other’s wardrobe. Ben distractedly fingers the tufts of cotton Flora has, at the last minute, decorated her homespun dress with (the best of her clothes having already been donated to The Cause), while she points to the holes in his dilapidated (bullet-hole-ridden?) officer’s hat. Finally there’s a rush of feeling between them, and the two fall into an embrace. Then as Flora leads him to the front door and enters it first, Griffith carefully composes a shot from within the porch but down its length, so that, as Ben reaches the door and hesitates before it, we see Flora’s arms and those of another unidentified female (likely the mother), her body and face unseen, extend outward from within, gather him up, and draw him into the house.
Like much of what we see of the Camerons’ domestic life, the entire scene is delicately underplayed, but here Griffith’s direction provides the emotional realism of a returning, battle-scarred veteran who feels disoriented and weirdly detached at the long-dreamt moment of homecoming. The Little Colonel’s mind and body still inhabit the pain and fog of war; it’s up to his family to pull him into the warmth of hearth and home. With the camera keeping its medium distance, we see, not faces contorted with joy and streaming tears, but just this simple gesture of welcome and familial restoration. The economy of the image, what it leaves out – and the visual mastery of its conception – are key to its power and why it’s the crowning moment in the entire film – and possibly the finest in all of Griffith’s career.26
But is the humane, universal resonance of this image, and others in the film, enough to let us forgive the racist excess of the rest? Perhaps not, but cannot one allow for the complexities, conflicts, and contrarieties of Griffith himself? I suspect it’s hard for any of us today – including many living below the Mason-Dixon Line – to imagine why and how Southerners27 born in the wake of the Civil War clung so tenaciously to stories of the Old South and the Lost Cause.28 In 1936, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind unapologetically painted the same picture of an edenic South, with slavery an unalloyed benevolent institution, as had Griffith. Leaving the propagandist Dixon out of the question, why didn’t Griffith and Mitchell – both intelligent and sensitive people – wise up to their region’s past?
But we can also consider how unreservedly the American public at large in 1915 bought into Birth’s vision of the South. It was captivated, not horrified, by the film’s Reconstruction drama. Then again, should this surprise us? Slavery, after all, had fostered the young economy of all of America, not just the South. The entire country – whether in 1865, 1915, 1939, or 2016 – has been and is complicit in the country’s racial divide, and this goes hand in hand with a century of overwhelmingly widespread ignorance of what really went on during Reconstruction.
Scholar Eric Foner, in the preface to his Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, explains that our revisionist view of Reconstruction – the point of view which makes the racist violence in Birth so loathsome to our eyes – didn’t emerge in any form until the publication in 1935 of W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America, which was then mostly ignored.29 The more lasting “revisionist wave” of Reconstruction scholarship didn’t occur until the 1960s and the civil rights movement.30
In the years leading up to the production of Birth (and way beyond it), scholarship was still under the spell of what Foner calls “the Dunning School,” a group of writers, gathered in the aught years of the 20th century at New York’s Columbia University, that upheld the concept of ‘negro incapacity.’” This extended, into the realm of adjudged, legitimate Reconstruction historiography, the view that blacks were essentially childlike beings “incapable of properly exercising the political rights Northerners had thrust upon them.”31 In the writings of these scholars, “blacks appeared either as passive victims of white manipulation or as an unthinking people whose ‘animal natures’ threatened the stability of civilized society.”32
Few people in 1915’s white America saw anything wrong with Gus’s lynching, the Klan’s ride to the rescue, or with the brief scene at the end of the film in which the Klan terrorize blacks out of voting. In Woodrow Wilson’s History of the American People (1901), the author had written of the need for the KKK as a “veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern Country” – a passage quoted in one of Birth’s intertitles.
Apparently then, Wilson’s book, which predated any of the publications of the Dunning School, was part of the filmmaker’s research; if not already known to him, Dixon, who was an acquaintance of Wilson’s from his college years, would have led him to it. (Dixon used his slight friendship with President Wilson to secure Birth’s premiere at the White House.) Along with assorted “facsimiles,” the insertion of the Wilson quote was Griffith’s chief bid for Birth’s historical credibility.
But if, hypothetically, the filmmaker had gone to the library in search of a source to challenge Wilson’s viewpoint and found those of the Dunning School, he would have only encountered views on the era that largely supported those already held by Wilson, himself, and Dixon. Dixon, born in 1864, grew up during Reconstruction, but Griffith and Mitchell most likely fostered their visions of the Old South, the Civil War, and Reconstruction on tales brought to them by parents, grandparents and great aunts and uncles. Who or what in the early 20th century could have disabused these three, or the nation at large, of their racist notions? The NAACP, the lonely organ of dissent after Birth’s premiere in 1915, had at the beginning of that year a membership of a mere 5,000.33
This is not to say that one can absolve a writer or a filmmaker of inherited racism by proclaiming they didn’t know any better. The Southern author William Faulkner, born 1897 in Oxford, Mississippi, heard the same song of the Old South from his elders as did Griffith and Mitchell, and yet was able to gain some purchase on the realities of race in the South after the Civil War, which he expressed in novels like Absalom, Absalom! (1936).
What Griffith saw in Dixon’s novels were villains, victims, and heroes engaged in a struggle to redeem the Southland. What he never could see or foresee was a national self-examination of a shared racist heritage, an exercise that, until much later in the 20th century, was not only unlikely but close to impossible (and not fully achieved to this day). In the 1930s, Margaret Mitchell, in her well-plotted romantic story, knew well enough to skirt white supremacist dogma, and most readers of the novel even now accept its retention of the fable of the Old South and its reactionary take on Reconstruction as part of GWTW’s venerable status. Some would call it a great American novel. (And let’s not forget that Pulitzer.)
But Thomas Dixon’s name is forgotten and his novels no longer read. Griffith and his films may still be with us, yet the critical trend seems to view his best-known work, The Birth of a Nation, as one more of a racist polemicist than cinema pioneer. Rather than having new restorations done and deluxe Blu-ray editions like BFI’s issued, would it be best if The Birth of a Nation be consigned as a hateful artifact – like vintage slave shackles – to the National Museum of African History and Culture in Washington, DC.? With its worst sequences looped in a video played on a monitor, it need not be in high definition to make its point.
But Birth is too alive to be shunted aside as a relic or as a reminder of how little (or how much) we’ve accomplished in race relations. It can be both these things, but Griffith, a complex, creative, and intensely motivated man, was much more than a regionalist hate monger. The full, diverse range of his films proves this, as does the diversity of intent and expression in The Birth of a Nation itself.
* * *
Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from YouTube trailers and/or the DVD(s).
- Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind (New York: Scribner, 2011). p. 491. [↩]
- Some folks, too, may have elitist, gourmet tastes for censured films like Triumph of the Will and Birth, the ugly content of which they savor as if it has a sort of inverted coolness. In the late ’70s I remember being at a party held by young art school students where a video of Riefenstahl’s film was played as visual background to the hip gaiety. [↩]
- Telling the story of the restoration in the edition’s booklet, Patrick Stanbury doesn’t explain why, once he realized that the LOC owned the negative, “most reels of which survived,” he didn’t then go back to base his new transfer on it. Too late to start over? Licensing issues? [↩]
- Although presented in 5.1 DTS HD audio, it’s unclear from the set whether the score’s recording is a recent one, or one taped back in 1993 to accompany Photoplay’s then current restoration of Birth. The booklet makes it clear, though, that Lanchberry had re-orchestrated the score, thereby increasing the orchestra’s size from Breil’s original specifications (around 40 players). Also a few of the score’s interpolations of classical works were switched to others by Lanchberry, who felt some of Breil’s original choices might sound “clichéd” to modern ears. [↩]
- Melvyn Stokes, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation: A History of “The Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time” (New York, Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 279. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 254. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 284. [↩]
- Of course Griffith was a racist, but, as Brownlow conjectures, so was much of white America in 1915. Then, as now, American racism covered a broad spectrum of attitude and intent, from white supremacist militancy to a progressive liberalism that masked its political condescension and need to control. [↩]
- Lee’s film The Answer was a 20-minute classroom project that almost got him expelled from the New York University film school. [↩]
- BFI use of a revision of Briel’s score, with expanded orchestration, pumps the exhilaration with its rendition of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries to accompany the Klan’s ride. These days, Birth’s original underscore resonates meaningfully with Coppola’s use of the same music in Apocalypse Now (1979). In that film, the character Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) explains the use of a recording of Wagner’s piece over speakers mounted on American helicopters as they commit a raid on a Vietnamese village: “It scares the hell out of the slopes.” Here the music is diegetic and complete with Valkyrie vocals, but, as in Birth, it’s accompanying an exciting sequence that’s also morally repellent, a queasy dialectic not understood by Griffith but totally intended by Coppola in his film. Kilgore’s intended use of Wagner also parallels the Klan’s use of the white sheets and hoods: that is, to terrify and disorient the enemy. [↩]
- Stokes, p. 79. [↩]
- Richard Schickel, D. W. Griffith: An American Life (New York: Limelight Editions, 1996), p. 301. [↩]
- The original Klan, glorified by Dixon and Birth, died out after being declared a “terrorist organization” by a federal court in 1870. [↩]
- Stokes, p. 35-38. [↩]
- Steven Spielberg, in his Lincoln (2012), drops the rumor in favor of fact and shows Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) in conjugal comfort with Lydia (S. Epatha Merkerson). [↩]
- Schickel feels that Lynch is in fact in love with Elsie, but I don’t. Lynch is too much a signifier to have feelings, other than a base obsession to rape a white girl. [↩]
- Stokes, p. 224. [↩]
- Suffrage for the freed blacks was the most hotly contested political issue during Reconstruction (and beyond). [↩]
- Schickel, p. 289-90. [↩]
- As the novel opens in the antebellum South, Mitchell’s use of “nigger” in her novel is limited mostly to blacks speaking of fellow blacks – an interesting but uneasy parallel to its current use among African Americans in the same context. Until Reconstruction begins, the whites of Southern gentry refer to blacks consistently as “darkies.” The only whites to use the term without hesitating are poor whites. The word occurs nowhere in the film. [↩]
- Earlier in the film, a Union deserter, after discovering Tara is bereft of valuables, appears to have similar designs on Scarlett, but before these can be clarified, she blows a hole in his skull with a concealed pistol. Scarlett’s feistiness in the face of male violence is a nice antidote to Mae Marsh’s passive suicidal response to it. [↩]
- This text is the screenwriter(s)’ not Mitchell’s. [↩]
- Schickel, p. 23. [↩]
- Stokes, p. 177. [↩]
- Schickel, p. 120. [↩]
- In his monograph (p. 279), Stokes quotes Leger Grindon, who said the scene “embellishes the emotional encounter until it achieves the scope of spectacle.” [↩]
- During the Civil War, Griffith’s home state of Kentucky was a border state loyal to the Union, but as such, the one with “the largest number of slaveholding families – mostly small farmers engaged in mixed agriculture…” (Foner. p. 37) like Griffith’s father, who was anything but a Unionist. The state also held onto slavery more steadfastly than others in the border region (Foner. p. 38), and the Klan was much in evidence there before 1870 (Foner. p. 428). [↩]
- Of course, for a portion of the Southern population, the clinging has never ceased. [↩]
- Foner. p. xix. [↩]
- Ibid. p. xx. [↩]
- Ibid. p. xvii. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Stokes. p. 169. But the film did help the organization to double in size and quickly, reports Stokes; by December, 1915, membership had risen to 10,000. [↩]