Reactions to The Birth of a Nation

Updated to engage relevant literature and draw connections to the attempt to control invasive silver carp. (Now with two additional sources and a literature review.)


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

    The following is my first attempt to create a representative Review of the Literature, regarding melodramatic rhetoric as a potential tool in the effort to control populations of invasive silver carp in the United States.  The biggest problem I encountered was the apparent lack of recent, relevant scholarship regarding the silver carp as an invasive species.  Most studies from 2013 and 2014 seem to focus on aspects of the biology of the species, rather than on the state of its introduced population or its effects on aquatic communities as a whole.  I am thus forced to operate under the assumption that silver carp populations in the U.S. today are substantially similar to the populations of five or six years ago, which is probably, but not absolutely certainly, the case.  
                                                                  On The Use of Melodramatic Rhetoric to Increase the Market for Silver Carp as a Food Fish
                  Melodrama is acknowledged by many as an artistic form and rhetoric capable of reaching and influencing large and diverse groups of people.  Various authors have pointed out a variety of techniques melodrama uses to persuade its audiences.  Noel-Smith discusses the presence of a feminized, helpless victim-hero in much of melodrama [9], while both Gillman and Anker describe how a melodramatic rhetoric can take whatever group is causing the supposed victim suffering and present it as an abstract, hostile entity [6, 1].  Anker and Linebaugh also both note cases when diverse and heterogenous groups of people can be brought together as common supporters of an abstract cause (basically "freedom" in both cases) and contestants of a common enemy (The perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks in Anker's example, and oppressive British rule in Linebaugh's)[1, 8].  Anker further points out melodrama's multi-sensory appeal, saying that it fuses "rhetoric and imagery," and "calls on music to create emotional pitch" [1].  Collins would also emphasize the way that human emotions are influenced by sharing a common experience with others [2], as people do when they watch a melodramatic work together.  All these factors contribute to melodrama's identity as what Gerould calls a "democratic genre of popular art, designed for large mass audiences ignorant of artistic tradition... but avid for robust entertainment and rudimentary moral instruction."
                No scholarship appears to exist as of yet concerning the silver carp as a melodramatic villain.  However, it has many characteristics that could be exploited to make it appear villainous.  It is a large, strong fish that could easily be vilified for taking the food sources of smaller native plankton-feeders, which could be cast in the role of the feminized victim-heroes described by Noel-Smith.  Another potential victim could be boaters who are endangered by the silver carp's unusual proclivity towards jumping, which Frazier describes [4].  Further adding to the silver carp's threatening nature is it's incredible abundance in habitats it has invaded.  In one stretch of the Illinois river, it was estimated that there were 2,544 silver carp per river mile, and silver carp comprised more of the annual Long Term Resource Monitoring Program catch than all other fish combined [10].  Finally, silver carp are capable of producing fertile offspring with the larger, also invasive, and also plankton-feeding bighead carp [7], posing the threat of what could be seen as an unnatural, sinister hybrid.  If the silver carp were successfully cast as a melodramatic villain, and seen as a villain by the "mass audiences" Gerould mentions, then perhaps more people in the United states would be interested in buying silver carp as a food fish (it is already popular in Asia) as part of the effort to reduce its population.  One proposed plan to control silver and other Asian carps does suggest an attempt to increase commercial harvest, and one of the strategies it suggests for increasing commercial harvest is to "develop new markets for Asian carps" [3].  It seems logical to assume that a market for silver carp in the very areas where they are invasive would be ideal.
            In this paper, if such a paper were to exist, I would explore the possibility of creating a documentary film about the silver carp in the United States that would employ the melodramatic mode to make the silver carp appear a villain to the people of the country.  I would, if possible, gather survey data to find out how many people already knew about the silver carp, and whether or not they felt strongly about controlling it.  If I found out that most people did not have strong feelings about controlling silver carp, then I would propose that an effective, entertaining, melodramatic documentary encouraging people to stop the silver carp by eating it could help establish it as a food fish in the American market.  
  2. Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.13.42 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.13.42 PM
  3. This shot, from near the start of the movie, begins to establish the virtuous, idealized nature of the southern whites.  It makes it look like picking cotton is pleasant and quaint, and shows the white people enjoying it while the black slaves are barely visible in the back.
                 Daniel C. Gerould, in "The Americanization of Melodrama," his introduction to the collection of plays American Melodrama, says that melodrama is "above all a democratic genre of popular art, designed for large mass audiences ignorant of artistic tradition... but avid for robust entertainment and rudimentary moral instruction."  Much of his article similarly argues that its simple messages, though they may lack subtlety and nuance, have shown tremendous popular appeal.  Such popular appeal would be ideal for getting across the "rudimentary moral" lesson that silver carp are harmful and dangerous, and ought to be controlled.
  4. Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.31.49 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.31.49 PM
  5. This shot shows the tragic, pathos-evoking death of the two "chums" who promised to meet each other again, and did--as part of opposing forces in a battle.  It contributes to the anti-war message that the movie promised after the opening credits.  Arkan thought it looked a little like they were going to kiss, but that probably wasn't intentional on the film maker's part.
              "A Motley Crew in the American Revolution," the seventh chapter of The Many-Headed Hydra, by Linebaugh and Rediker, goes a few steps further than The Birth of a Nation, which argues for cooperation between Northern and Southern whites, and details cooperation among people of diverse ethnic groups and social stations in common rebellion against British injustices.  A call for the control of silver carp could employ a related rhetoric by emphasizing the diversity of the hundreds of fish species native to the United States, and showing how their diversity is threatened by the spread of silver carp.

  6. Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.51.09 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.51.09 PM
  7. Gee, I wonder if he's a bad guy.

  8. Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.56.50 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.56.50 PM
  9. As outrageous as this line, spoken by the faithful black servant lady, is, it does show some interesting rhetoric by the movie-maker.  It's as if the movie is saying that it doesn't have a problem with black people in general-- it just has a problem with black people who don't know their place.  It backs up the idea by portraying a supposedly more rational, "good" black person as saying that she herself can't understand the black people who try to put on airs and act like whites.  In the most racist way possible, the movie tries to tell us it's not being racist, and that rational black people would agree with its message.
  10. Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.07.00 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.07.00 PM
  11. I found this scene to be one of the most fascinating and strange in the movie.  It shows a courtroom with a mostly or entirely black jury, a black defendant and a black judge.  This is a shot of the poor, persecuted white people who have such tragic looks on their faces since they know they have no shot at a fair trial because of the prejudiced jury.  It's like a weird, backwards "Too Kill a Mockingbird."  I kind of doubt that a court ever existed where whites couldn't get a fair trial, but the movie uses one to make the white southerners look like the victims of prejudiced blacks.  Look who's calling the kettle... I don't even know.
  12. Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.10.38 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.10.38 PM
  13. Even within this movie I found this scene, a portrayal of a mostly black legislative body, startlingly racist.  It tried to make the black men seem utterly incapable of doing a serious job, showing them taking off their shoes, putting up their feet, drinking alchohol and not taking anything seriously.
             This scene in the movie also seemed to emphasize the high numbers of blacks, overrunning and overpowering the white minority.  Such high numbers of silver carp really are starting to overrun some of the country's rivers.  For example, "A mark-recapture population estimate for invasive silver carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix) in the La Grange Reach, Illinois river," by Sass, Cook, Irons, and others, estimates a population of 328,192 of them in that reach of river, or a staggering 2,544 per kilometer of river.  It also says that silver carp comprised more of the Long Term Resource Monitoring Program catch for the year than all other species combined.  Pointing out such enormous populations could help make the silver carp seem as wildly out of control as the black legislature is made to seem in this scene.
  14. Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.08.20 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.08.20 PM
  15. This scene, like the court scene, places the blame on blacks for a transgression I associate with whites.  Rather than whites trying to keep blacks from the vote, blacks are beating the "good" black guy (you can tell by his white clothing) for not voting for their party.  Arkin tied this scene to the modern term "Uncle Tom," which is used in a derogatory fashion to describe a black person who goes out of his way to please whites.
  16. Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.13.15 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.13.15 PM
  17. Can't we all just get along?
         One of the main reasons for the animosity between the white hero and the mulatto Silas Lynch is that Lynch wishes to marry a white woman.  Both the white hero and many audiences of birth of a nation would consider such a "hybridization" undesirable.  However, in the case of the silver carp, literal hybridization is occurring with the also invasive bighead carp, according to the article "Restriction site-associated DNA sequencing generates high-quality single nucleotide polymorphisms for assessing hybridization between bighead and silver carp in the United States and China," by Lamer, Sass, Boone, and others.  The article says that "Asian carp hybrids are fertile and capable of advanced introgression beyond the F1 generation," so they could hybridize indefinitely and in any number of combinations.  The potential to hybridize with the larger bighead carp could be presented as yet another element of the silver carp's dangerous nature.
  18. Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.28.57 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.28.57 PM
  19. Arkin and I both saw some elements of the KKK's exploits that reminded us of swashbuckling outlaw heroes.  They wear masks to hide their true identity, sometimes even from the people closest to them, and are forced to work outside the law in the pursuit of true justice.  This scene is particularly Zorro-esque, as they leave a trademark symbol as a sign of defiance, then disappear before they can be discovered. 
  20. Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.36.53 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.36.53 PM
  21. The comic-relief "good" blacks helping their white masters (or I suppose "employers," now that they're servants rather than slaves) with an escape, again trying to imply that a clear-thinking black would be against the same people the KKK are against.
  22. Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.45.41 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.45.41 PM
  23. With the evil look in this Lynch's eyes and the panicked terror of the girl he's trying to rape, the movie makes it's audience hope for the KKK to arrive as soon as possible, and believe they should use any means necessary to stop him.
             Geoffrey Noel-Smith's article, "Minelli and Melodrama," emphasizes the focus in melodrama on a female or feminized hero who is helpless to protect herself or himself, particularly in the section headed "Action and Passion."  The Birth of a Nation employs actual females as its helpless heroes, and has them saved by the active, violent, masculine KKK.  In applying melodramatic rhetoric to the silver carp problem, though, it could be effective to cast smaller plankton-feeding fish, such as gizzard shad and minnows, as the feminized victims of the large, brutal silver carp that are taking away their food sources.  That would leave it up to people, then, to step up, take the masculine role, and save the smaller fish from the silver carp.
                Other potential "victims," though, of silver carp, could be people themselves.  "Fish out of Water," an article by Ian Frazier, points out the tendency of silver carp to jump out of the water when startled, and how large specimens can be very dangerous to boaters.  The silver carp really lends itself well to the role of a chaotic, brutish, mob-forming savage that will wreak destruction if it isn't stopped.
  24. Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.57.52 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.57.52 PM
  25. Here is the kind of shot chapter 3 from Williams talked about so much-- the white tide of the KKK washing away the black from the screen.
          Blood Talk, by Susan Gillman, repeatedly engages the struggle of W.E.B. Du Bois with people's perception of "The Negro Problem."  Du Bois, she says, pointed out that nobody cared to study the history of people of color, nor to think of them as individuals, and instead tried to lump them all together as a single "problem."  Such a rhetoric is easy to see in The Birth of a Nation, which frequently chooses to show a crowd of chaotic blacks rather than focusing on the faces or identities of any individual.  
             It is incredibly problematic, of course, to view human beings in such a way.  However, it is perfectly acceptable, and makes perfect sense, to view the invasion of silver carp in the same way-- as one, unified "problem."  While "Blood Talk" points out the unfairness of simplifying the issues of African Americans into a matter of biology, issues with silver carp undeniably are a matter of biology.