The Birth of a Nation

An illustrated diary of reactions to the film


  1. Historian David Cook describes Griffith as a bigot completely immersed in black-and-white nineteenth century melodrama (Williams). Griffith's blatant and excessive use of common melodramatic themes made watching The Birth of a Nation a somewhat shocking experience -- one that I was not entirely ready for. The anti-Tom idea presented by Williams is expressed in full force by the role reversal shown in the film. The events attempt to call back to and support what Thomas Dixon, Jr. explained as a time when blacks "knew their place." The film used the moral ambiguity that arrived with modernity to its advantage, painting the Ku Klux Klan as classic heroes of melodrama and justifying their actions.
  2. Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 11.41.09 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 11.41.09 PM
  3. The shot above emphasizes an idea presented in many of Dixon's novels, that there was a time when blacks "did not need to suffer the agonies of lynching" among other tragedies (Williams 103). It shows slaves dancing and partying during their break from work, portraying southern slaves as happy and content with their lives. Of course with respect to the film's main audience (whites) this is a powerful scene that twists moral ambiguities, making slavery seem okay. This is where the film begins to categorize "good" and "bad," forming its own moral compass for the rest of America to follow.
  4. Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 10.59.44 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 10.59.44 PM
  5. Contrary to Dixon's portrayal of a "bad" black man capable of owning property, the film also contains "good" faithful slaves who take pleasure in white happiness or are intimidated by the so-called "bad" blacks. It explains Griffith's perfect social stratification, pressing on the point made in the previous shot. 

  6. Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 11.34.13 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 11.34.13 PM
  7. The reenactment of Lincoln's assassination was actually nerve-wracking to witness. What was more surprising was how the film used this event as a vehicle for the second half of the movie. With Lincoln's death, Stoneman and other radicals were determined to punish the South, spawning the aforementioned role reversal where blacks are dominant -- stuffing ballot boxes and keeping whites "under their heel." Griffith thereby vilifies blacks and portrays whites as an oppressed class, echoing Marx's Communist Manifesto. He created a class struggle, akin to the relation between the bourgeois and proletariat. 
  8. Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 11.38.18 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 11.38.18 PM
  9. Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 11.42.26 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 11.42.26 PM
  10. At this point, Griffith attempts to make the audience sympathize with the whites. "Roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation" is a phrase that implies that they are fighting for what little they have left. Black intimidation of white civilians and the chaos that follows black rule only serve to make the audience realize that a savior is needed. And who better to "protect the Southern country" than the Ku Klux Klan? Griffith uses this sympathy to trap the audience into believing the moral standards set in the film. I really didn't know what to expect before the start of the film, so this turn of events really took me off guard. The scariest part of all this is how effective such imagery must have been at the time of the first screenings of the film -- how easily it must have swayed viewers into believing what was on screen.
  11. Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 12.19.41 AM
    Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 12.19.41 AM
  12. In addition to use of the "nick of time" trope explained by Williams, this scene is especially melodramatic due to what it does to the black man. The chase begins when Gus asks Flora if she would like to get married. The scene slowly turns the freedman captain into the villain, "sexualizing his relations with white womanhood and by having him assault the 'holiest of holies' (Williams 103). His actions ultimately end with Flora's untimely demise, dismantling any structure of racism previously known to the audience. When even a good black man can cause such tragedy, what else would the white audience think? The scene turns a simple marriage request into what is portrayed as an attempted rape, with the only escape being death.
  13. Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 12.34.18 AM
    Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 12.34.18 AM
  14. The film portrays the Ku Klux Klan throughout as "white knights" whose sole purpose is to save the the nation from the oppressive black machine. The Klan, mounted on their white stallions, pushes back the chaos of the black soldiers through violence. Singer explains that only though violence can man break away from institutionalized society (Singer 133). Griffith attempted to rationalize white violence on blacks with his use of the oppressive black government which passed ludicrous laws that actually made me laugh and wince at the same time. Because the white people had been so "traumatized," such violence was only necessary to bring back the social order of the "good old days."