Birth of a Nation D W Griffith (USA 1915) Lillian Gish Mae Marsh

Birth of a Nation D W Griffith (USA 1915) Lillian Gish Mae Marsh

Screening at Star and Shadow 23 May 2010 Ticket: £4 ; £3(c)

Retrocrit: What’s in a name….

The Birth of a Nation wherein we see white men ‘black up’ and pretend to be niggas. . What’s it all about? The Clansman was the original title of the film which is about Ku Klux Klan and their heroic and daring do deeds in lynching assaulting and intimidating blacks jews and stupid whites who didn’t know their place. Of course what was at issue was the place of the Klan in history, and soon after the release of The Clansman the movie’s name was changed to Birth of a Nation. With the stroke of a pen the film became something more than grown men dressed up in white sheets with traffic cones over their heads, riding out to attack blacks. With its title change the film was claiming for the Klan a critical role in the history of the nation; it was a calculated attempt to justify racism by showing white supremacists as ‘the saviours’ of the Nation in the aftermath of the Civil War. It also held out a promise to its white protestant audience.

The movie did not get away with peddling its racist story without opposition. On release Birth of a Nation (sic: which nation) was seen as an unacceptable portrayal and vilification of blacks; an interpretation of US history that deliberately misrepresented the role of Afro-Americans in the development of their nation. In particular in the industrial towns of the North where there was strong black political and social organisation, the film’s opening was met with riots violence and protest for its shameful insult to a people. The film was banned in Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, Kansas and St Louis.

D W G professed surprise and shock at this reception, but perhaps he did protest too much. His expression of bewilderment at the response by blacks to his movie looks like a pose of cynical innocence. Viewing the film with its overt racist message makes it hard to credit that this experienced and urbane director would have been unaware of the film’s effect on Afro-Americans. The title change may have been motivated by the need to ensure the success of the film. Using the idea of ‘Birth’ as part of the title and linking it to the fate of the nation, Griffiths was subliminally pitching the idea of ‘Birthright’ to the majority white audience. The film’s title became a overt promise to the whites that their supremacy over and superiority to the Blacks (and other races) was a legitimate part of their American ‘Birthright’. Opponents picked up this claim both in title and content, and little wonder bitterly opposed it.

If the promise of supremacy of whites was part of DWG’s audience contract in re-titling the Clansman then this ploy was an undoubted success. DWG was almost bankrupted in producing the most expensive movie ever made, but was rewarded by the biggest box office returns in the history of cinema. Of course publicity a few riots indignant black objections all helped to sell the movie to the whites: who of course saw nothing wrong with it.

It is a magnificent epic movie, with superbly orchestrated battle scenes. A film that was innovative in many ways: its use of close -ups, tracking shots, parallel editing and other areas. But it is most conspicuously a social product of a milieu where racism was embedded deep in the grain of America’s psyche and social structure. As such this is something to understand and assimilate as you watch the film. And O yeah those ‘blacked up’ whites playing niggas? The reason for this was probably that Hollywood 1915 was as strictly segregated as anywhere. This means separate toilets, separate changing rooms, separate canteens perhaps even separate entrances for blacks Without segregated facilities white actors and technicians would have refused to work. It’s likely that DWG’s production company didn’t have segregated facilities, so the easiest solution was not to employ black actors, but get whities to ‘black up’.

adrin neatrour

Author: Adrin Neatrour

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