Birth of a Nation

Sheena (bold), Chelsea (italics), and Izzy (underlined) Note: the comments correspond with the pictures below them


  1. In this scene, we see a black man disciplining a small black child who fell off of a wagon entirely accidentally. I wasn’t only surprised to see this man so casually pick up the child and start spanking him amidst the townspeople, but also shocked that the townspeople did not react to his actions as I am now. Then Izzy brought up a good point… - Sheena

    For the audience of the time, this was seen as commonplace. They would have identified with the white crowd of aristocrats who observed this interaction from their safely removed patio behind a fence. Now, as we sit here and watch this scene, we feel sympathy for the hapless child who fell off of a wagon only to be picked up and spanked. Therefore, the intended effect of this scene as it was received in its time is different than the way we receive it now. - Izzy

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    Screen Shot 2014-02-02 at 6.36.55 PM
  3. Here we see a goofy black slave portrayed by a white actor in blackface. My initial reaction: That’s racist! It was interesting to observe that Griffith chose white actors in place of black actors to play the major black roles in this film.  The appearance blackface throughout Birth of Nation really seemed to propagate the racial stereotyping of blacks as unintelligent and menacing.  After doing some research, I found that the term Jim Crow has ties to blackface. It originated in 1830 when a White minstrel show performer blackened his face with burnt cork and danced a jig while singing the lyrics to the song “Jump Jim Crow”. Blackface was also employed in Mickey's Mellerdrammer, a Disney show likened to early minstrel shows. Mickey’s blackface and exaggerated red lips made him seem clown-like and unsophisticated, the perception many whites had of blacks at the time. Also, if black actors were even requested to play major roles in this movie, they would have been reluctant to participate in a film that glorifies the KKK and demonizes black mens as sexual predators. - Sheena
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  5. In this screenshot, we see a picturesque romance between two aristocratic members of the southern gentry. The use of the picture frame effect shows the audience that this is an idyllic time and place. Everything is being set up as perfect, so that when things go wrong, we truly feel nostalgic for what was ruined. Singer mentioned that melodrama harps on about the beautiful things, exaggerating the good as much, if not more, than the bad. - Chelsea

    To add to Chelsea’s point, I originally felt the heartwarming effect of the picture frame and the green tint, but immediately became skeptical of the motives of the director for showing this scene, which makes no sense in the plot of the movie. I also resented the length of this scene, given that the entire movie was over three hours long. - Izzy

  6. Screen Shot 2014-02-02 at 6.38.42 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-02-02 at 6.38.42 PM
  7. In this scene, we see that the black slaves and white slave owners happily getting along, though still remaining somewhat separate. I found it bizarre and unrealistic to see them interact with each other so warmly. Griffith portrayed the southerners having such good relationships with their slaves to establish the southerners as virtuous beings who care. The slaves seem to love working (and happily dancing) for their masters. In Playing the Race Card, Williams also highlights that melodrama relies on the innocence of victim heros and the realization of their integrity: “Recognition of their virtue orchestrates the moral legibility that is key to melodrama's function" (Williams, 29). Thus this scene serves to help the audience start recognizing the inner goodness of the southerners. Moreover, this harmonious portrayal of the southern lifestyle makes the audience feel that the southerners would be justified in questioning anyone who disrupts said lifestyle.  - Sheena

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    Screen Shot 2014-02-02 at 6.39.42 PM
  9. Dialogue (recording our reactions as we watch):
    We are not following the plot.
    Who is this woman?
    Is she supposed to be white? If so, why is she dressed unlike the rest of the aristocracy?
    Why are her clothes torn?
    Why is she cleaning?
    Why is she crying?
    Why are there no captions for important things, but plenty for trivialities?
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    Screen Shot 2014-02-02 at 6.40.54 PM
  11. Prediction:

    Williams, in chapter one of Playing the Race Card, points out that from midcentury England until now, melodrama has become synonymous with “a manipulation of the heartstrings that exceeds the bounds of good taste.” However, Harriet Beecher Stowe maintains that such things “have [their] own peculiar place in the world.” Singer further suggests that melodrama thrives in times of “stark insecurities” where the world as people knew it was in the throes of massive social change. Armed with this knowledge, I predicted early in the movie that the KKK and its sympathisers used this movie as propaganda to recruit to their cause and gain favor among the general population. I predicted that they would focus more on the KKK being a righteous group dedicated to reclaiming the perfect way of life from the beginning of the movie and less on them being racially-motivated murderers. - Izzy

  12. The soldiers are being hailed as heroes. No one is weeping as they depart because, for the most part, these were everyday young men being recruited to fight a fight, the horrors of which had not been fully explained to anybody. Also, the slaves seem to be rooting for the white soldiers as well, which is not exactly historically accurate. - Chelsea
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    Screen Shot 2014-02-02 at 6.41.30 PM
  14. The first thing I noticed is that the Guerilla fighters were black. The film makes it seem like in the North, black people were not as content as the ones seen in the South. Also, these were black actors, or at least were less painted than their southern counterparts. I was alarmed by the ruthless ransacking of homes and the barbaric portrayal of the predominantly black militia. In this scene the northerners intrude on the peaceful and idyllic way of southern life, and recklessly shatter it in their intrusion. The predominantly northern militia runs through the very same quaint town square area where people were dancing and frolicking and happily getting along at the beginning of the film. One of the suggested tenets of melodrama is that it “begins and wants to end in a space of innocence" (Williams, 28). In Birth of a Nation, the home and the outside square are icons of the “spaces of innocence” for  southern families like the Camerons. Williams also notes that "the narrative proper usually begins when the villain intrudes on this idyllic space" (Williams, 28). The militia devastating the town evokes sympathy for the southerners and symbolizes the destruction of their innocence. It also marks the beginning of their quest for retribution. The melodramatic plot engines of victimization and retribution are similarly stressed in the Communist Manifesto. The Manifesto also elicits sympathy for a group of victim heros (the proletariat) and calls for them to seek revenge against those who have intruded on their lifestyles (the bourgeoisie). The Manifesto also highlights that being oppression united the proletarians, just as the invasion of the north united the south as a victimized force. - Sheena

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    Screen Shot 2014-02-02 at 6.42.01 PM
  16. Throughout the film, the background was some tint of yellow or white. I was interested to see how the sudden change in tint to bright red here was reflective of the violence ensuing in this scene.   - Sheena

    The red tint here is indicative of fire, anger, and violence. Because of the silent nature of this film and films of its time, music is often relied upon to lend mood to the scenes. Birth of a Nation also employs color tinting to aid the audience in understanding the tone of each scene. - Izzy

    Random thought: Is there a color version of this? As in the way that they colorize old movies after the fact based on what color they probably were? If there is, I wonder how that would change the movie. For one thing, the black face would likely be much more obvious. Also, the color tinting would go away, but I didn’t really understand the significance of the color tinting besides the red anyway. - Izzy

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    Screen Shot 2014-02-02 at 6.43.17 PM
  18. Here we see the suffering of the heroes, as they lose their youngest son/brother and are forced to sell all of their possessions to aid a dying cause. In this way, the southern family becomes the "victimized, misunderstood hero" (Bousquet, Harry Potter) as they gave everything they had to a war they ended up losing. In popular opinion of the time that this movie came out, the southerners were not seen as such. By telling the story of the civil war as a time of noble sacrifice by the Confederate soldiers, the movie opened the audience up to the idea that the KKK was not so bad and worked on aligning themselves with the side of good. - Chelsea

    In addition, the suffering of the family serves to prove their virtue. Suffering shows that the heros are unselfish and willing to endure hardships for the sake of others. For this, they are virtuous. In melodrama, the suffering of victim heroes is often more obvious than their virtue is. Williams also argues in Playing the Race Card that a “victim whose visible suffering transmutes to proof of virtue” is crucial in the establishment of the moral legibility so integral to melodrama (Williams, 30). Griffith employs this aspect of melodrama throughout Birth of a Nation as many of his heros suffer with the loss of their loved ones. -Sheena
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    Screen Shot 2014-02-02 at 6.43.42 PM
  20. Dialogue:
    Where did the racially ambiguous lady go?
    Was she possessed?
    After "The North Victorious" slide, everything looked desolate for a solid ten minutes.
    They did not leave the ransacked areas in disarray, but cleaned them up.
    Southerners trying to make the best of a bad situation. Eye of the tornado?
    Tons of injured people in hospitals, Elsie is trying to cheer them up.
    Soldier met Elsie for the first time after having her picture for years.
  21. Here, I felt sympathetic for the Mrs. Cameron as she risks her life standing up to the soldier guarding the hospital just to see her son. This shows that she values family more than anything, even her life. It also underlines her “misrecognition by a figure of authority”, which establishes her as a misunderstood hero - a common plot force of melodrama (Bousquet, 180).  - Sheena

    I agree with Sheena that the mother’s actions are honorable and clearly identify her as a melodramatic hero. This fits well within Singer’s observations that “on the one hand, melodrama portrayed the individual’s powerlessness within the harsh and unpredictable material life of modern capitalism; on the other, it served a quasi-religious ameliorative function in reassuring audiences that a high cosmic moral force still looked down on the world.” The mother is powerless against the soldier guarding the infirmary, yet somehow she is granted admission to see her son. As the audience is intended to interpret it, this can only be the act of a benevolent higher power looking down on her intense melodramatic suffering. - Izzy

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    Screen Shot 2014-02-02 at 6.44.27 PM
  23. Dialogue:
    Just figured out that the Stonemans are from the North
    They seem really southern, though
    I wish there were more captions
    That was kind of unclear
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  25. Here again, we see Singer’s point that melodrama thrives in times of immense change and threatening modernity. He says it best: “melodrama as an an expression of the instability and insecurity of the transition to modernity.” Lincoln and the end of the Civil War signified a new time of reconstruction in both the North and South, but his abrupt assassination brought about a much more intense set of changes. Williams points out that “melodrama is often referred to as occupying… the childhood of individual readers or viewers.” At the time this movie was released, much of the audience that would have been the prime age to join the KKK would have been children when Lincoln died. Whether in the North or the South, they would have felt the chasm left by his untimely death and the irreparable damage it did to the fledgling reconstructionist movement. In this way, Birth of a Nation called upon the childhoods of the viewers by stressing an event that was important in their lives, if not crucial to the plot of the film. Lincoln's death causes disarray in society. Everyone in the North liked Lincoln, and he was the best chance of settling tensions between the North and the South. Everyone blamed the South for Lincoln's death, so the politicians take it out on the South by being overly cruel. However, we clearly see the southerners being upset at news of Lincoln's death, so they remain the misunderstood victims. - Izzy

    To add on to Izzy’s comment about Lincoln's death causing disarray in society, Singer also remarked that melodrama was a reaction to the “social upheavals of modernity” (Singer, 132) and the uncertainty that these social changes brought about. The dramatic portrayal of Lincoln’s assassination in Birth of a Nation supports Singer’s argument as his death causes an “upheaval” of the lifestyles known to nation. - Sheena