I found myself fuming at a film that I showed to my American Film class this past week. My reaction caught me by surprise because the movie is almost a hundred years old and I have screened it many times before. Why did D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) get under my skin this time?
I’ve arrived at the following conclusion: the racism that pervades Griffith’s masterpiece is alive and well in many of those trying to delegitimize Barack Obama’s presidency. The people I have in mind are not those who have policy differences with him but those who claim that he wasn’t born in the U.S. or that he’s a Muslim (not that this is a disqualification for being president) or that he’s a tyrant who should be subjected to a second amendment remedy (i.e., an armed overthrow).
The film made me aware of what drives many of these people crazy about Obama: more than anything, Griffith is infuriated with blacks being elevated to positions of power. Here are some of the scenes that got viewers’ blood boiling in 1915:
–Stoneman, the head of the Senate who wishes to crush the south following the war, has a mulatto mistress who insults his southern guests (those who feel she should know her place).
–The mulatto Silas Lynch (a particularly repulsive name given that blacks were the victims of Lynchings, not the ones carrying them out) insists on being treated respectfully by the whites. There are scenes where Stoneman tells him to stop bowing and scraping because he is now an equal; where Confederate colonel Ben Cameron refuses to shake his hand; and where he gets obvious enjoyment from putting Cameron in his place. (“We have just as much rights to the sidewalks as you do.”)
–In a particularly egregious case of racial stereotyping, the former slaves who are elected to high office are shown to be booze-drinking, fried-chicken-eating incompetents who want one thing above all: the right to marry white women.
In Griffith’s vision, the blacks are running roughshod over white southerners. This is all occurring because of their Northern liberal friends, who might pretend to be enlightened but are secretly racists themselves. (We know this because Stoneman, while claiming equality for blacks, won’t let his daughter marry one.)
Although there are good blacks in the film, their depiction furthers my point: even after they are no longer slaves, the two “faithful souls” stay with their white masters and complain about “uppity n—s” from the north. In other words, they know their proper place.
I pretty much have to teach Birth of a Nation in my American Film History course. That’s because, like no other film, it got people to start taking film seriously. Suddenly audiences could see its potential as a major art form. While Griffith didn’t invent the basic vocabulary of film, he made such effective use of the close-up, cross-cutting, fluid camera movement, varying camera range, flashbacks and other film techniques that the medium was never the same afterwards. People walked out of Birth of a Nation feeling that the world had changed. President Woodrow Wilson reportedly said that it was “history writ in lightning.”
Not everyone was positively impressed. There were black protests against the film and it was banned in Boston, prompting Griffith to complain about censorship. The NAACP, founded a mere six years before, got its footing in protesting the film. It had to because the film contributed to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, which had been in decline. For years afterwards the KKK used the movie as an effective recruiting tool.
I’ve known all this and in the past taught the film with a fair amount of detachment, talking about the film as a social barometer for 1915 America. I will do so again today when my class meets because I don’t believe in imposing my politics upon my class. But I will be thinking that this is a version of a drama being playing out in contemporary America.
Like Griffith, certain whites in this country claim to be victims—that they are being tread upon—and they are throwing a temper tantrum over the fact that they have a black president. Like Ben Cameron, they don’t want to shake hands with him and will turn against any in their ranks who are willing to compromise with him. To them, Obama is like Silas Lynch, exulting in his power, while Michelle Obama is like the uppity black woman in the former slave quarters who insults the man who used to be her master. (Why else does Rush Limbaugh have such loathing for her and why is he obsessed with how the Obamas are emasculating whites?) Some on the extreme right have visions, as Griffith does, of an armed uprising that will restore things to the way they were. Guns sales spiked when Obama was elected and have been high ever since.
Griffith used the power of the media to rewrite the history of the Reconstruction. Instead of being seen as a period when slaves were freed and enjoyed unprecedented rights, it became regarded as a time when whites were subjugated. Now an onslaught of rightwing media commentators are trying to say that something similar is happening today.
Fortunately, we have moved a long distance since 1915, when Griffith’s chilling images of the KKK hanging blacks and keeping them away from voting booths was a reality. After all, we do have a black president. The sentiments I’m describing are those of a minority of Americans.
But they are a very vocal minority, and many have a fair amount of power, especially in the southern states. As we move towards the 150th anniversary of our Civil War, one can wonder whether we are ever going to get past that war. Everywhere it seems to come cropping up again. As William Faulkner famously writes about the American south, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Ultimately I am an optimist who believes we will reach a point where it is no more unusual to have a black president than, say, to have women in Congress (or, for that matter, as president). But given our history, we shouldn’t be surprised that there has been an intense negative reaction o it happening.
We will grow up.