Birth of a Nation

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  1.  Before starting the film, I knew that it contained powerful melodramatic elements that helped sway "national sentiment toward white Southerners as victims of black 'misrule" (Williams 111). It was still hard, however, to fully believe what I was seeing. The unbelievable racism was used in amazingly imaginative ways to rewrite history and change the pathos of the time and fuel sympathy for the white victims of black evil, as well as create a heroic status for those brave individuals who fought back against that same black evil.
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    Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 6.27.38 PM
  3. Williams notes that the early portions of the filmed worked to create a 'romanticized picture' of the pre-war South, replete with "kindly masters and happy childlike slaves"(119). The early scenes are successful in doing just that. The impression left by the scenes are of happy working slaves who are given adequate time for meals and rest. They are also all to happy to dance, literally and metaphorically, for their semi-bemused masters who watch on as a parent would watch an over enthusiastic child. These scenes don't merely paint a happy portrait of slavery, but it sets the positions of whites and blacks in the south. The whites are understanding, kind, sympathetic paternal figures who watch over the blacks. While the blacks are comical dullards who enjoy serving and entertaining their beloved white masters. 
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    Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 7.25.17 PM
  5. Just as Marx lays the groundwork for necessity of a revolution in the Communist Manifesto, Griffith begins laying the groundwork for the necessity of the Clan by portraying the unfair treatment of the former 'paternal' figure masters at the hands of negroes who don't know their place. The only black characters who are portrayed in a positive light are those who are submissive. The ludicrous idea of black repression of innocent whites begins, uniting the victimized, white heros against the villainous negroes. 
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    Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 7.29.34 PM
  7. Flora's jump off of the cliff was, as described by Williams, to avoid a "fate worse than death." Williams also notes that this is an instance of the rescuing hero being just 'too late' and not "in the nick of time". By Ben Cameron not arriving in time to save Flora from taking her 'only possible escape' from the dreaded black man, Griffith is able to establish what lengths a white women would go to in order to escape a black man, and, what lengths a black man would push a white women to in order to satisfy his primal cravings. By further victimizing the white women at the hands of the black man, Griffith continues to illustrate the need for the Clan. 
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    Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 7.32.27 PM
  9. Williams writes that the cabin serves to dissociate Dr. Cameron from the grand plantations that thrived under slave labor. It instead sets him in a modest setting and associates him with humility and virtue. It is just another instance of Griffith flipping the script of history and casting the white southerners as the virtuous victim worthy of sympathy. They were not wealthy slaveowners cowering in their palatial estate from the tides of a revolution of equality, they were common, decent people entrapped by beasts. This was just one more element of the movie that led me to assume that, since the film did have such a large, positive welcome, some of its elements were so easily accepted partially due to the fact that film was in its earliest stages of development. Audiences were not as likely to question what they saw. If they saw a few things that they knew to be facts, such as quotes from Presidents, then they may have taken everything they saw on the screen to be alarming truths. 
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    Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 7.38.55 PM
  11. Williams aptly describes the way in which Lynch proposes and chases Elsie around the room, how the Clansmen depart on horseback for a rescue, and how Elsie finally succumbs to the horror of the idea of a black husband and faints. She mentions that he is stuck between worlds due to his biracial ancestry, but he seems to be more than that. He seems to possess some of the higher faculties associated with aryans (which is how he came to a position of relative power), yet, is ultimately powerless to his primal, beast-like tendencies. This is interesting, because unlike the 'good negroes' who know their place, Lynch simply does not have one. The position of the 'mulatto' is that of a vagabond. It also shows that the sexual savagery of the blacks is dominant in the gene pool. 
    A subtitle reads that Lynch is drunk with wine and power, again asserting that the negroes have forgotten their place. 
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    Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 7.38.05 PM
  13. Singer writes that evil is always vanquished in melodrama, often by the virtuous hero. In the case of "The Birth of a Nation", the rescuing heroes are the clansmen who are seen riding in, on the way to save the day as soon as innocent whites are in danger due to the presence, and often, sexual thirst of the barbaric negroes. Williams notes that as they ride into scenes, they often white wash the scene, ridding it of any blacks. In most scenes the clansmen are on horse back as they chase and battle the black militia men. This creates an interesting idea of only 'beasts' on the ground as it is just the negro soldiers and the horses that stride through the scenes. 
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    Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 7.39.57 PM
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    Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 7.41.33 PM
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    Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 7.41.55 PM
  17. Williams describes American action melodrama as "an effective manipulator of audience response" because of its use of temporal and rhythmic elements (33). Scenes cut back and forth between the 'damsel in distress' and the 'rescuing hero', playing with out conception of time, pulling us both forward and backward, anxious for time to remain on the clock and facilitate a 'in-the-nick-of-time' rescue. It was truly horrifying to watch just such melodramatic 'in-the-nick-of-time' rescue play out at the end of "The Birth of a Nation". The added anxiety of such a climactic action sequence deepens existing feelings and emotions; it makes the viewer sympathize more for the damsel in distress, hate the villain more strongly, and respect the daring hero who comes to the rescue. It was frightening to see this play out knowing the historical audience and significance of the movie. The helpless, good whites were trapped in their humble log cabin with the barbarians knocking on the gate. Their only hope is that the virtuous Clansmen would make it in time to save the day. Needless to say, the last sentence is one that I thought I would never write.  
             All of the frustration that I felt watching scenes that depicted the 'happy slave days', blacks suppressing whites, blacks stuffing the ballot box, good negroes that know their place, and the savage, beast like tendencies of the other black characters culminated in semi-disbelief as I watched this final 'rescue'. It was important that this be a 'in-the-nick-of-time' rescue and not a 'too late' rescue because it not only demonizes the black aggressors and victimizes the helpless, blameless white victims, but it sanctifies the clansmen who save the day and are the only hope against fighting evil. This scene is representative of what may be the greatest injustice of the movie--it not only rewrites the history of race relations in the South, but justifies violence and continued hatred towards blacks.