The Birth of a Nation

My reaction to D.W. Griffith's silent melodrama.


  1. This is a brainstorming . We were. We were We were asked to detect melodramatic rhetoric used to negative purposes, as in Birth of a Nation. Later, we were asked to repeatedly revise the original story imagining melodramatic rhetoric turned to better purpose. The point is to develop a research topic that we are passionate about to write about.
  2. Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.13.42 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.13.42 PM
  3. In this scene, Griffith shows the plantation owners in the foreground while black workers are barely visible in the background picking cotton. Grace reacted to this scene by laughing at how ridiculous the set up was. The workers are just happily picking cotton like it's an easy, well paying job.
  4. Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.26.47 PM (1)
    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.26.47 PM (1)
  5. Grace and I were shocked at this portrayal of a black soldier in the Civil War. He is inexplicably shirtless and bent over like a wild animal. He clutches his gun like a club. Griffith manipulates the mis-en-scene to make the soldier seem inhuman.
  6. Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.31.49 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.31.49 PM
  7. This scene was very melodramatic. The two "chums" are on opposite sides of the Civil War, yet here they are, forced to confront each other in this most bloody war for "state's rights." It is also important to note that the Union soldiers appear to be wearing black, while the Confederate soldiers are in lighter colors. The director melodramatically uses costume to immediately identify one side as good and one side as bad.

    "The harms of hate speech are real and that the goal of educational equality is an important one, but we will also see that the dangers to free speech that campus speech codes represent are very real and that our goal of equality may be best attained by restricting campus speech only in the most egregious case" (Shiell, 14).

    In this clip, Griffith portrays both the North and the South as sympathetic, as the two "chums" are reunited on the battlefield and finally in death. This scene can even be seen as an aberration in the film as the good side (South) and bad sad (North) are no longer so black and white. In this quote about speech codes from Shiell, he explains that this divisive topic can not be examined quickly and that there are merits to both sides of the argument. I could explain this at one point of the melodrama before turning to hammer in the point that speech codes are a violation of our First Amendment rights.
  8. Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.38.50 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.38.50 PM
  9. This close up of the food is cinematically intriguing as a close up of an inanimate object. It also used in a melodramatic way to portray the starvation and struggle of southerners during the war. This scene has pathos, and is supposed to make the audience feel sympathetic to the victimized southerners.
  10. Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.55.56 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.55.56 PM
  11. In this scene, we laughed as the servant who symbolizes an Uncle Tom, or a black person who seeks to please the white man above all else, kicks a black man who has decided to use his freedom to put "airs" on her and act above his place in society. This was a way for southerners to validate their ideas about segregation, that there existed "good blacks" who agreed with white southerners about their subordinate place in society. We also noticed the use of color to differentiate the "good" blacks from the "bad" blacks
  12. Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.59.11 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.59.11 PM
  13. This shot is striking because it seems more realistic than many others. However for the director and the southern audience, it is supposed to be their nightmare: many freed slaves working together to make real political change.

    "From so bright a cadre of graduates, from so prestigious a law school would come some of the law professors, civic leaders, college presidents, and even maybe a Supreme Court Justice of the future. And many of them would have learned-like so many other university students in the land-that censorship is okay provided your motives are okay" (Hentoff).

    In Birth of a Nation, Griffith wants the audience to feel fear that African-Americans are going to come out of this town hall meeting with "equality" and real power in the government. By the same token, in his paper, “Speech Codes” On The Campus And Problems Of Free Speech" Nat Henoff intends to strike fear in this quote that students will come out of universities today thinking "censorship is okay provided your motives are okay." I could use melodrama as a rhetoric by which to emphasize university "brainwashing" about "censorship" and that "once you start telling people what they can’t say, you will end up telling them what they can’t think" (Hentoff).
  14. Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.08.20 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.08.20 PM
  15. This whole sequence is totally ridiculous. The idea that freed blacks would take it upon themselves to punish another black person who voted for a white person is totally ridiculous. Not to mention the idea that there were many "good" blacks trying to make things go back to the way they were during slavery. Grace and I also noticed the color contrast in their clothing, in order to obviously display who is good and who is bad.
  16. Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.11.09 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.11.09 PM
  17. "When this title card came on the screen, I gave a fake gasp. It's as if Griffith believes that having white people "salute negro officers on the streets" is the worst thing that could ever happen to white people. The idea that the audience at the theater would agree truly astounds me.

    "As a 'symbolic act,' however, melodramatic performance, like all cultural behavior, was not only an imagined representation, but also a social event involving the interaction of people in a specific place and time--an event as real as making love or mining coal" (McConachie, X).

    In this quote, McConachie describes melodrama an "event," not just a text. Melodrama relies on the audience, and the endpoint of a melodrama is not just the script or the screenplay but an event. The success of a melodrama is based on if the audience is able to take the emotions of the melodrama and manifest them into their everyday life. The audience of Birth of a Nation should view this cue card, that whites were forced to do something as unjust as saluting blacks on the street, and leave the theater a little more wary of giving power to blacks who would only abuse it.
  18. Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.14.54 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.14.54 PM
  19. This is another title card that is totally ridiculous by today's standards. Clearly it is meant to evoke a reaction in the audience, to stir up latent racism as they imagine how terrible life would be under the "black south." When they leave the theater, these patrons are supposed to be more wary of the possible black conquerors around them.
  20. Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.21.33 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.21.33 PM
  21. This scene is very dramatic. The virtuous lady in white lies at the bottom of the canyon, forced to her death at the hands of the evil, black would-be rapist. Williams described scenes like this in her book as a fruition of the white man's fear of black men taking their women.

    "Audiences share their suffering, reacting (some critics say overreacting) with a spontaneous flow of strong emotional responses. 'The capacity to shift very rapidly from one extreme feeling to arouse direct and immediate emotion in its audience' (Cawelti 264) remains a key element in melodramas and, not coincidentally, plays a crucial role in the immense popularity of Spielberg's most successful films" (Friedman, 64).

    Although this article is on Spielberg, it accurately describes the "a key element in melodramas" of creating a "spontaneous flow of strong emotional responses" in the audience. In the above screenshot, Ben is shocked to find his sister lying at the bottom of the ravine. Birth of a Nation is just a series of action packed events that build on each other in order to "'arouse direct and immediate emotion in its audience.'" In this case, Griffith escalates the violence of the black townspeople in order to establish their evilness in the minds of the audience. He utilizes "the capacity to shift very rapidly from one extreme feeling" of creating anger, horror, sympathy, and terror "to another."
  22. Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.23.00 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.23.00 PM
  23. Grace and I were dumbfounded that the audience is supposed to view the woman as a martyr, as it is more noble for her to kill herself and commit a terrible sin by Judeo-Christian standards than it is for her allow herself to be raped by a black man. This also concerns the melodramatic preoccupation with innocence, and the helplessness of females.
  24. Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.27.15 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 8.27.15 PM
  25. I was struck by the composition of this scene. The black would be rapist looks like a wild animal, his eyes are rolled back and his shirt is ripped opened. He has to be restrained by multiple clan members, who surround him bearing crosses, as if sent from God. From a melodramatic standpoint, in which members of society are struggling to cope with the diminishing influence of religion, the clan becomes like fate or the hand of God, saving the white man from the evil black man in the nick of time.