Melodramatic Elements in 'Birth of a Nation'


  1. Disclaimer: This is a brainstorming exercise. We were asked to detect melodramatic rhetoric used to negative purposes, as in Birth of Nations. Later, we were asked to repeatedly revise the original story imagining melodramatic turned to better purpose. The point is to develop a research topic we are passionate about to write about. 

    Globally, homosexuality has elicited a myriad of reactions from conservative Christianity. Research has been extensively conducted to explore melodramatic elements of such reactions. Work by Goodwin addresses emotions of persecution among white middle class conservative Christians of the United States, as they “see gay people as the antithesis of the good society, the embodiment of a world in which rules, order, self-discipline, and stability are severely lacking”. Anderson cites allegations and attacks on homosexuals in Zimbabwe, such as an idea presented at an international conference that “homosexual recruitment activity aimed at young people…..that homosexuality was in the same league as molesting children and bestiality”. Similarly, Siker illustrates opposition to homosexuality from Asian church leaders, who refer to the issue as a “deviation from biblical teachings”.

    Goodwin writes, “I interpret Christian gay-bashing, not so much as scapegoating and emotional displacement, but as the kind of magnetic attraction among rivals which helps mobilize both sides”. How do conservative churches help homosexuals in Asia mobilize against them? For instance, Siker notes that in Hong Kong, “Christian groups saw the change as morally unacceptable and a threat to family life”. In this accusation, Christianity symbolizes the ‘moral good’—and homosexuality becomes the ‘evil’ force that not only threatens the religious virtue of moral good, it also threatens unique cultural identity.

    This paper will look into melodrama that is incorporated in arguments against conservative Christianity in Asia, as it defends against accusations of destroying cultural identity and virtue of morality. 

  2. Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.13.42 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.13.42 PM
  3. This scene is representative of the South right before the Civil War, where black people (although not seen in the screen shot) are laboriously working in the back picking cotton, while white people are leisurely walking around the gigantic plantation. I thought this scene would evoke rage from the audience, for it blatantly portrays the inequality in race and wealth between two different racial groups. 
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    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.31.49 PM
  5. Laura and I thought this was an interesting scene because the camera closed up on death and camaraderie of two confederate soldiers, while none of the the scenes covered bravery or tragic deaths of union soldiers. This scene evokes a sympathetic response from the audience by accentuating sacrifice between two brotherly soldiers, creating a sense that one has lost a male family member. 
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    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.38.50 PM
  7. This scene is a stark contrast to the first scene where white Southern people are enjoying wealth in a cotton field; it shows a child holding a plate of small portion of corns. It effectively highlights starvation and poverty that people were experiencing during the war. By employing such a dire situation, the scene evokes empathy towards the character and ultimately the South. 
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    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.39.13 PM
  9. Laura and I noticed that scene was again focused on confederate soldiers, especially on survivors who are wounded. As the camera focuses on the solider who bravely fought for his country but is wounded badly, the audience will also feel helpless. By evoking vulnerability of the hero, the audience becomes sympathetic towards the soldier and rest of the confederate soldiers. 

    Goodwin writes in 'Passionate Politics' that "Christian conservative activists believe they are innocent victims of numerous injustices. Living in an ostensibly secular society, they believe they are persecuted for their beliefs..." The continuous portrayal of the South as the victim shows that similar to modern Christian conservative activists, southern white people also believed that they were victims of the war, by showing how children were going hungry and brave young men were dying. In modern society, victimization of self continues among conservative Christians as they struggle to alienate homosexuality, for "Christians who help give voice to gay men and lesbians who have exercised their right to self-determination and chosen to forsake homosexual sexual activity through a relationship with God were equated with Nazis who have “ targeted a specific minority for elimination”  and will soon target others." (Hodge). By referring to the group that supports homosexuality as 'Nazis', Conservative Christians become a persecuted minority, ultimately evoking sympathy from rest of the world. 

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    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.42.09 PM
  11. This is a scene where a confederate soldier safely comes back home after the war and is greeted by the girl that he loves. He holds her tightly as he stares vacantly into the space; Laura and I thought it would evoke compassion from the audience since he survived the war and is reunited with loved ones. The soldier looks manly and heroic as he stands in front of a building with almost an unwavering attitude. 
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    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.51.09 PM
  13. This scene was symbolic of one of melodrama's key characteristics-a clear division between the good and the evil. Laura and I started laughing because it was so obvious that Booth was an antagonist in the story. The camera highlights the evilness of the character-in this case, John Wilks Booth who assassinates President Lincoln-by utilizing fisheye lense and zooming in on the character, while dimming rest of the screen. Moreover, the Booth glares into the camera, almost at the audience-which is foretelling the next scene where Booth shoots Lincoln. 

    Similarly, Grant writes in 'Film Genre Reader 2' that in order to overcome limitations of early melodrama, directors "had to develop an extremely subtle yet precise formal language (of lighting, staging, décor, acting, closeup,, montage, and camera movement) because they were deliberate looking for ways to compensate for the expressiveness, range of inflection and tonality, rhythmic emphasis, and tension normally present in spoken word." 


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    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.22.53 PM
  15. This scene was interesting because right before the scene, the girl was running away from a black guy who was trying to rape her. When she ends up at a cliff, she chooses to kill herself by jumping over the cliff rather than get raped. The movie approves of her actions; a description is added that we should learn the "lesson of honor" from her. By casting the role of rapist to a black man and the role of an innocent girl to a white girl, melodrama attributes heinous crime to black people, evoking hostility from the audience. Moreover, as the guy holds her in his arms and vows for revenge, his later actions of revenge as a member of KKK are overlooked. 

    In 'Movies and Methods, Nichols points out that "Insofar as activity remains equated with masculinity and passivity with femininity, the destiny of the characters, whether male or female, is unrealizable; he or she can only live out the impairment (‘castration’) imposed by the law." Death of the female character occurs once equality has been established as a law; and this law is ultimately seen as a harmful 'impairment' to the society. 

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    Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 8.19.34 PM
  17. This is a scene where the girl breaks off the engagement with her fiancee after she learns that he is in KKK. He looks around as he carefully picks up the mask and puts it into his jacket. This scene effectively victimizes the hero because he is misunderstood by his lover to be a part of 'band of outlaws'. The story ends when the hero's  lover recognizes his virtues-justifying his actions as a KKK member. 

    In 'Film Genre Reader 2', Grant writes that "letting the emotions rise and then bringing them suddenly down with a thump is an extreme example of dramatic discontinuity, and a similar, vertiginous drop in the emotional temperature punctuates a good many melodramas. …orchestration of such a scene can produce strong emotional effects, and the strategy of building up to a climax so as to throttle it the more abruptly is a form of dramatic reversal.." Although the audience is frustrated by the female character's actions in breaking up her engagement, such emotional downfall is compensated by a happy ending as the hero saves her and creates a 'dramatic reversal'-which effectively captivates the audience.   
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    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.56.36 PM
  19. In this scene, white people are seen fleeing to a cottage in the meadow. The cottage symbolizes a safe haven, and it is one of the unique characteristics of melodrama. Williams mentioned that in 'Uncle Tom's Cabin', the cabin symbolizes "space of innocence"-and in this movie, the cottage plays the same role. The cottage becomes a place that white people run to for protection, and that preserves goodness. 

    Nichols writes in 'Movies and Methods' that "What is at stake (also for social-ideological reasons) is the survival of the family unit and the possibility for individuals of acquiring an identity which is also a place within the system, a place in which they can both be ‘themselves’ and ‘at home’, in which they can simultaneously enter, without contradiction, the symbolic order and bourgeois society." The cottage represents a place where one feels 'at home', and where all social orders are preserved. 
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    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 9.03.11 PM
  21. This is a scene where all the white people in the village are fleeing to the cottage. While everything is chaotic and frightening, the camera zooms in on an innocent child in the crowd. Laura was surprised at a sudden contrast with scenes right before this; she felt that helplessness of the situation was emphasized. The scene is melodramatic because by focusing on a helpless and a weak character, the audience will be more empathetic, feeling pity towards suffering of the white people. 

    In "Citizen Spielberg', Friedman notes that "melodramatic characters attain moral status chiefly through their suffering….audiences share their suffering reacting with a spontaneous flow of strong emotional responses." By evoking sympathy of the audience, the movie effectively creates an illusion that suffering of the white people is virtuous. 
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    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 9.03.16 PM
  23. Laura and I both commented how dramatic the scene was as a dad tries to kill his own daughter-and we realized he was doing that to prevent her from being raped by black men outside the cottage. It was an interesting scene because it happened in the cottage, a safe haven that preserves goodness. It is similar to the scene where the girl jumps over a cliff to kill herself in order to not be raped by a black man; the movie highlights the "lesson of honor" of preserving virtue. 

    Throughout the movie, black men were portrayed as rapists. Historically, it was a popular belief during early 1900's that black men were rapists-hence, the Lynch law was passed where a community would take justice into their hands by hanging and beating a black man. Similarly in history of homosexuality, "the bourgeoisie also reacted against sodomy (by which they meant all nonprocreative sexual activity) among the aristocrats, seeing it as an unproductive self-indulgence that expressed lust, not love or the desire for children. Indeed, sodomy became a metonym for excessive indulgence of material desires, evoking connotations that went far beyond sexuality" (Greenberg and Bystyrn). As a rhetoric, melodrama in both cases instill fear in anger in the audience, and cause them to oppose the targeted group of people based on irrational emotions. 

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    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.28.57 PM
  25. This was a rather an unsettling scene; the black man who tried to rape a white girl (who eventually killed herself) is caught by the KKK and her death is revenged as promised earlier. This action of an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth provides a feeling of relief for the audience, that her innocent death is finally justified. This scene is melodramatic because it only focuses on the aspect of revenge and effectively engages audience to approve of KKK's actions, while ignoring underlying racial tension. 

    In 'Performing American Identity in Anti-Mormon Melodrama, Jones explains that “Melodrama itself is a means to incarnate and expiate its audience’s fear; “evil” is the name of those fears, and the villain is its agent. The villain must die to lay fear to rest, and virtue must triumph to affirm the world view that melodrama’s audience cherishes and to restore the moral order” (Jones). In this scene, the villain who tried to rape a white woman is killed, which brings a sense of justice to the audience. In the modern society we still see incarnation of fear in the form of 'evil'; for instance, Zimbabwe was considering passing a law against homosexuals where three time offenders were punishable by death. Supporters "alleged homosexual recruitment activity aimed at young people and one speaker suggested that homosexuality was in the same league as molesting children and bestiality" (Anderson). By casting the role of villain to homosexuals, fear of breaking traditional family values and Christian teaching prompts one to kill villains in order to restore social and moral order.