There is little doubt that Birth of a Nation by D. W. Griffith is one of the classics of Hollywood cinema, and it’s power and intensity as a masterpiece of film editing and construction is still as effective and powerful today as is was when it was released nearly a century ago. In fact, it has been argued by many critics that the film set the standard for the Hollywood system of filmmaking.
Even now, on watching the film, one can’t help but be swayed by it’s sheer power as a cinematic spectacle. Fielder suggests that “No one who has seen the ride of the Klan in The Birth of a Nation can forget it; those silent hooves pounding as if forever through a dream landscape; the camera returning again and again to the hushed riders bent over the sweating backs of their horses, then cutting to their wives, mothers & daughters trapped in a house around which a horde of black devils swirls, banging against wall and door with rapacious hands.”
D. W. Griffith used a number of pioneering techniques to express his vision, both with editing, lighting and by using an extended format that ran to over ten reels in length. His $100,000 budget was unprecedented at the time. Indeed, even the narrative structure was radical, with “documentary evidence” used to support Griffith’s view. But The Birth of a Nation is also an overtly racist film. Blackness is seen in an almost universally bad light, and notions of blackness and whiteness are reinforced by the powerful way in which the message is transmitted. Indeed, when the film was first shown in 1915, audiences would boo and hiss the marauding blacks while cheering the Ku Klux Klan as they ride to the rescue.
This is testament to the film’s power and the impact that the film had on audiences, by exaggerating and (at times) creating the difference between the good guys (the white Klan members, fighting for justice and freedom), and the bad guys (the blacks, “drunk on wine and power” ). In this essay I will look at how these various film techniques, how the mise-en-scene and how the structure of the film conspires to produce and exaggerate the notion of blackness and whiteness. I will look at the various devices that D. W. Griffith employed in order to promote his specific views of black and white, and also, the more problematic identity of the “mulatto” and the resultant difficult ambiguities of cultural homogeny.
“Editing produced a kind of visual magic with its own rhythm and logic. Cutting from close-ups to crowd scenes made for ‘panoramic drama’. Thus, the white leader enters not as an individual, but as […] the whole Anglo-Saxon Niagara. Audiences, [Vachel Lindsey] thought, became mobs ‘for or against the Reverend Thomas Dixon’s poisonous hatred of the Negro.’
Griffith’s editing technique is highlighted a lot by critics as a pioneering way of gaining momentum as the film soars like lightning towards it’s incendiary climax. As Thomas Cripps suggests, the editing works to homogenize specific types of people. In the final scenes, as the Ku-Klux Klan is cut rapidly into scenes of Silas Lynch attacking Elsie Stoneman, and as white people are besieged in their shacks by a marauding army of blackness, the swift cutting helps to bring these people together into one whole. The whites become universal heroes, whereas the blacks are seen as an evil army.
Parallel editing, or the cutting between two different storylines, is used to homogenize and politicize the whole story, and therefore to stereotype and reinforce identities of blackness and whiteness. Cripps suggests that “the white leader enters not as an individual.” Towards the end of the film, the editing between the mighty army of the Ku Klux Klan, with the war scenes, sandwiches the universal idea of whiteness (the noble freedom fighters, the virginal women, the purity and the decency of the individual men) whips up into a sort of tornado of imagery that serves to highlight the qualities of so-called whiteness, while simultaneously denigrating blacks (who are similarly edited together as individually rapacious and hyper-masculine, through the scene with Gus and Silas Lynch, to being collectively anarchic and ignorant, with the armies intimidating and victimizing the white ideal.)
Also the swift editing between the action and the intertitles that project objective quotes from sources such as Woodrow Wilson, and from facsimiles from the actual time, help to place the film in a historical context, and help to stress the notions that Griffith’s subjective history is based in a sort of truth. So, the parallel editing techniques serve to exacerbate traditionally held notions of blackness and whiteness, and the cutting between the two serves to reinforce stereotypes of race and difference between races. Also, the negro sympathisers, as epitomised by the Stoneman family from the North, are portrayed less favourably using parallel editing: “Parallel sequences […] give the Camerons not only more screen time, but also more spectacle, psychological elaboration and melodramatic intensity. […] [W]e see a great deal of the Camerons and the world of […] plantations, whereas the Stonemans are restricted to two interiors.”
Also, the actual narrative serves to thwart the Stoneman’s idealism, especially when the conflicts start to happen, thanks to Austin Stoneman’s idealistic “dreaming” : “The Stoneman family is also, in the film’s terms, a deformed one: the father is lame and bewigged, the mother is dead and not only has her place, as housekeeper and sexual partner, [has] been taken, without marriage, by another woman, but, worst of all, the mother is a mulatto.” The first part of the film is primarily about regional politics. Although there is a scene where the black guerrillas terrorise the Cameron’s house. The conflicts are, by-and-large, regional. However, as the film progresses, Dyer suggests that “[t]he sense of a transcendent racial identity is conveyed by the shrinking of geographical and temporal coordinates.” So, by concentrating the action onto the South (the Stonemans moves to the South to facilitate this), the politics change from a battle between Northern and Southern ideologies, to the supposed politics of blackness and whiteness.
“[The Birth of a Nation] altered the entire course and concept of American moviemaking, developing the close-up, crosscutting, rapid-fire editing, the iris, the split-screen shot, and realistic and impressionistic lighting.”
Each of these techniques are used in a propagandist way to enhance and distort specific functions of race and racial identity. The epitome of how this distinction is made and then exaggerated using specific film-making techniques is in the rape scene with Flora, the little sister, and Gus, the inarticulate negro, which eventually results in Flora’s suicide. This is a very complex and multi-layered scene, and has a lot to say about how stereotyped notions of black and white identity are reinforced by the structure of the film. Richard Dyer suggests that “the make-up of the period still aimed at a pure white and unblemished surface. The whiteness of the white woman could be brought out by editing. In the sequence in which Gus chases Flora, cross-cutting between them has him less strongly lit, often lurking behind foliage or bleeding into the iris within the frame of the image, whereas she is always fully in the light, often with a halo created by her being kept away from the Iris so that she is rimmed with light.”
Similarly, with the scene between Silas and Elsie, “[l]ighting in concert with costume and actor movement and positioning, gradually heightens Elsie’s whiteness. There is frontal light over the scene as a whole, but Silas is positioned three-quarters side on to it, so that he is in semi-darkness, whereas she is positioned full on to it, catching all of its glow.” One senses that with these parallel scenes of rape, both of which begin as marriage proposals, Gus saying quite innocently “You see, I'm a Captain now - and I want to marry”, and saying to Flora: “Wait, missie, I won't hurt yeh.” Initially, Gus is not being unreasonable, but, at least according to the film’s logic, the threat of interracial marriage is a grave one, and a great deal of film time is devoted to lambasting the concept.
The blacks, having overrun the government, pass the law in chaos. And the two marriage scenes both divorce (at least initially) Gus and Silas from any wrongdoing. What happens afterwards is that black attempts at whiteness (by proposing marriage) are thwarted, so blacks, driven by frustration and instinct, turn to rape and molestation. As Dyer suggests, in The Birth of a Nation, “marriage proposals [are] represented as rape.” , and “[t]he tensest narrative set-pieces […] concern acts where violence expresses the horror of the interracial mingling of blood as much as the male domination of women.” Gaines suggests “Griffiths most infamous sex scene, the encounter between little sister and Gus, has often been referred to as The Birth of a Nation ‘rape’ scene, although […] the girl throws herself off the cliff ‘rather than to submit’ to the overtures of the importunate Gus.”
Indeed, it is merely the position of Gus as innocent that Griffith seems most concerned with. He is, according to the film, “a product of the vicious doctrine spread by the Carpetbaggers” , thus he is not autonomous or individual; like all negroes represented, the narrative structure of the film simply assumes that slavery is the best thing for them, incapable as they are of engendering any sense of autonomy or self-determination that isn’t driven by the primal, unsophisticated urges of sexuality or violence. Gaines goes on to say: “[W]hat audiences and critics alike appear to understand is that Little Sister’s horrible fall is one long extended metaphor for the physical agonies and the psychic terror of interracial rape.” Indeed, Silas is a mulatto, and is thus seen as the essential product of miscegenation; of mixing between races and cultures.
Gus’s dialogue however, is innocent; a simple proposal of marriage. But the mise-en-scene and the editing conspires against him. Flora is seen initially frolicking in the woods. The scene cuts to a squirrel framed in an iris. As Thomas Cripps suggests: “the negro becomes a predator about to pounce upon a harmless animal” thus his statement, that he won’t hurt her, assumes a macabre intention. Griffith, utilising his mastery of the editing process, strengthens the stereotype of blackness as predatory. The lighting techniques are used similarly in both scenes, as blackness and whiteness are exaggerated. He is criticising blackness and the threat of blackness to white women, who (to Griffith), “embod[y] the transcendent superiority of the white race.”
White femininity is seen as being chaste and pure. Indeed, Griffith’s representation of white women as whiter-than-white in the film serves to exacerbate notions of hypermasculinity among blacks. Both Silas Lynch and Gus are terrorized by their carnality, and cannot comprehend or understand rejection. Gus’s mad eyes staring into the camera as he hunts Flora suggests that he is dominated by his primal instincts. As Griffin suggests in Black Like Me: “[A] scholar […] presupposed that in the ghetto the Negro’s life is one of marathon sex.” This exaggeration of black sexuality is frequently alluded to in The Birth of a Nation and, when juxtaposed with exaggerated views of female chastity and purity, serves to exaggerate the dynamic of difference between white gentility and black carnality. Indeed, Griffith suggested that his war was against this specific type of carnality.
Belton suggests that “Griffith believed that an image projected on a screen could become a tool for completing the great goal of history; lifting mankind from animality.” This fear of animality was certainly something deeply embedded in his deep South upbringing, which had become caricatured in the concept of the negro as a bestial, primal force. Eventually, Flora kills herself or stumbles, and is held limp in the arms of Ben Cameron, whose demeanour suggests the archetype of noble prince and white hero of classical tradition. At the end of the film, Ben falls in love with Elsie; which, according to how blackness is represented in the film, is a system of etiquette that runs in the exact opposite vein of black carnality and sexuality. The lighting is pure and bright, and there is an air of safety that interracial relationships simply cannot foster in the film.
“Excerpts from Woodrow Wilson's "History of the American People";... Adventurers swarmed out of the North, as much enemies of the one race as of the other, to cozen, beguile, and use the negroes.... In the villages the negroes were the office holders, men who knew none of the uses of authority, except its insolences.”
The film harks back to a golden age before the onslaught of racial equality that put many Afro-Americans and “mulattos” in a position of equality over whites. In the opening of the film, negroes are still dancing and having fun in their respective homes. In the cotton fields, they are seen as happy; the proliferation of natural imagery at this point suggesting that this is the “natural” way of things: the way things should be. Indeed, Mammy stresses: “Dem free-niggers f'um de N'of am sho' crazy” , before kicking the backside of the free black man for good measure. The “free-niggers” are, according to the film, a sign of cultural miscegenation that can only lead to inexorable conflict and chaos.
Interracial marriages are ridiculed by the narrative of the film, and Silas, being half-caste, thus effectively the by-product of this miscegenation, both wheedles his way into a powerful situation, and abuses this power, because of the blackness that he cannot quell. Dyer suggests that “the inherent problems (of white complicity) always thrown up by any reference to miscegenation are met within the text of Birth by an alternative, North inflected view of whiteness, which has the effect […] of rescuing the ‘contaminated’ whiteness disclosed by the mulatto narrative.” This alternative Northern whiteness is thus seen as uncontaminated by the negro influence, thus offering a hope of a racially segregated, and thus unambiguous racial system whereby everybody has their place and their correct role.
This racial ambiguity is highlighted in a number of ways: “[a]ll the blacks […] are bad by the film’s lights, yet the polarities of naturalism and artifice are deployed in the means of representation. The whole thing is made more confusing […] when later Elsie somehow recognises two “white spies” who have blacked themselves to hide away among the black mob; the pair of actors appear to us indistinguishable from the other white actors in blackface.” Indeed, minstrelsy is employed as arbitrarily as actually casting black actors, and the whole notion of race is problematized by this unusual decision to have people from different races playing the same other. Perhaps this could be seen that the threat, according to Griffith’s world view, is contamination and ambiguity, as opposed to blackness in general.
Overall, The Birth of a Nation broaches many themes and stresses the concerns at the heart of a racially segregated South of the presence of the negro. Traditional notions of blackness and whiteness are exaggerated in the film using a variety of techniques, both with Griffith’s innovative film-making techniques, and also by the plot of the film. The central concern with Griffith, however, appears to be the concept of miscegenation. The pure and untainted ideal of white femininity is heralded throughout the film, and is exaggerated both by lighting techniques, by juxtaposing blackness, which exists in the dark margins of the film stock, with the purity, the gentility and the quiet sophistication of whiteness, and via the use of the iris, which serves to both exaggerate light and lend femininity iconic and romantic connotations. Also, femininity is seen in direct connection with nature, which is especially apparent in the scene where Flora is “raped” by Gus, and thus kills herself.
The mulatto, especially Silas Lynch, is essentially seen as the representation of both cultural and genetic miscegenation, and his impending madness and desire as he manipulates his way to power, can be seen as the horrific by-product of this desire to integrate and homogenize different stratus of society and race. The ideal of the plantation is heralded as a golden age before the conflict, where both blackness and whiteness lived together in harmony. This is emphasised by the natural elements of the text. Also, this is all brought together by masterful editing to make an allegory that isn’t merely specific, but provides a general view of good and evil, namely, the cartoon representation of black qualities and white qualities, that we still see in cinema today.
The rapid editing works to superimpose these individual stories onto a more general ideological framework of racial stereotyping. Thus, as Dyer suggests, the “repeated instance of this [classical lighting] is the gathering and riding of the Klan. […] [T]he screen is filled with a whirling whiteness.” Via editing, narrative and mise-en-scene, using a variety of techniques, the resultant ambiguities of equality are attacked, traditional values of blackness and whiteness are separated, and the racial confusion of miscegenation is pulled into sardonic scorn, both by the whirlwind action movie editing, which cuts like a razor between blackness and whiteness with increasing speed, and by the narrative drive to exaggerate these cultural differences.
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