Popular Literature and Culture: Birth of a Nation

An examination of the melodramatic effects in Birth of a Nation via screen shots from the movie. By Nicholas Lal


  1. Ben Stinger discussed the presence of the value of the home in melodrama. Stinger argues that one aspect of melodrama's ability as a genre to appeal to the masses is to include the sentimental emotions involved with a sense of home and original belong. Birth of a Nation uses this melodramatic aspect in the opening scene where a quaint southern town in South Carolina is depicted.
  2. Linda Williams noted in her book "Playing the Race Card" that Birth of a Nation and the Anti-Tom novels of Thomas Dixon depicted African Americans as child like and irresponsible. The screen shot above which depicts slaves dancing during their work break in an un-orderly fashion. By having the white characters watch this dancing in proper clothes with an amused look on their faces, this scene near the beginning of the movie subliminally sends a message of caucasian racial superiority.  
  3. Marc Bousquet in his paper Harry Potter and the War Against Evil notes that the genre of melodrama can be used as a tool to organize public opinion. Birth of a Nation's version of a confederate flag stating "Four Our Cause is Just" as opposed to the historical stars and bars shows a bias to sway the watcher to the side of the Confederacy in a manner that can not get much more overt.
  4. Linda Williams also wrote about the concept of agnition in the genre of melodrama. Agnition is the basic notion that there is one side that faces another side. The picture above which shows African American Union under a white commander storming the Cameron home in South Carolina. This depicts a struggle between north and south as well as white and black. To expand on the notion of agnition, the hostile manner that the troops raid the house not only sets up a narrative of one side versus the other but also sets up the notion of a good side against a bad side.
  5. The melodramatic Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engles discusses the newly formed Bourgeoise seizing of power over the previous monarchical ruling classes. The Bourgeoisie is described as being at the mercy of the proletariat because they hold a majority. The screen shot above of African Americans using ballet stuffing and halting the democratic process for whites mirrors the political exploitation expressed by Marx and Engles.   
  6. Williams commented on Birth of a Nation and the Anti-Tom novels saying that they depicted African Americans as ultimately bad or in her words  "bad n*****." By having the newly elected african american congressman disrespectfully put his feet up on the desk, the movie attempts to horrify the audience as to what would happen if African Americans were to get political autonomy. 
  7. Mickey's Mellerdrammer showed an amateur performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin emphasizing an unprofessional act with a rowdy audience. In addition the "actors" in the anime short used black face in a manner that emphasized the cheapness of the production. This gives the whole notion of the play a less serious vibe. In Birth of a Nation however the use of black face has a different motive. The black face attempts to make the white men playing as African Americans "blacker than black" intensifying their skin color, facial expressions, and their tendencies as a stereotypical African American. This attempts to instill fear as opposed to instilling a comedic sense of relaxation like the Disney short did.
  8. Bousquet also mentions the melodramatic narrative of white hats vs. black hats turning into a confrontation between the honorable, educated, and respectable professional-managerial class and an elite class that pulls the strings. Ben Cameron shows this P-M role throughout the movie as a war hero called "The Little Colonel" and in the screenshot above as his face shows indignation holding Elise Stoneman after she jumped off a cliff to avoid the advances of an African American soldier. The soldier is represented as a pawn under Silas Lynch who is depicted as one of the elite antagonists in the film.
  9. Ben Stinger notes that melodramas had an aspect that simulated religious values and religious symbolism. The religious notion of sacrifice to "save the south" is prevalent in the film and the clip above. The KKK are the models of this religious symbolisim with their white robes making them look like knights Templar.
  10. Marx used the notion of the working class to attempt to unite people across a national and other divides over the similarities that all working class men shared. The clip above shows how Birth of a Nation achieves a similar goal by using the notion of being an Ayrian to unite the former divides between northern and southern white men. This shows power that melodrama has as a genre to support an evil cause.
  11. Lastly, Williams mentions that one technique used in melodrama is a suspenseful conflict for the duration of the performance only to have the protagonist ride in to save the day. In the screenshot above the KKK rides in on horseback routing the enemy soldiers in the South Carolina town. This leads to the stereotypical "happy" ending that is  depicted in a melodrama. But this is not all that is accomplished by the film's conclusion. Birth of a Nation used melodramatic effects to sway the hearts and minds of people to a world view that is frankly unconscionable. But this is not to say that melodrama itself is unconscionable but it has the potential to be a powerful weapon in the name of manipulation.