Melodrama in Birth of a Nation


  1. Lit Review

    The 1st amendment, and more precisely the right to free speech, is without a doubt one of the most highly praised amendments, and one that all Americans hold on to very dearly. In a society as opinionated as the one we live in today, it goes without saying that the amount of controversial stories published is abundant. Due to the first amendment, however, these stories have been allowed to go about untouched. While we want to believe that the government and others will not impede on our right to free speech, there are countless examples in history where our most cherished right has been violated. Today, our right to free speech is violated in more than one way, and whilesome choose to be oblivious to this obstruction, it became clear to me just how much our right to free speech is restricted in High school when our schoolnewspaper was unfairly censored.
    Today, administrations and school boards, all over the US, are censoring High schools newspapers, a clear violation of “free speech.” According to the FirstAmendment center, “for years, students were protected by a high standard of freedom of expression based on the SupremeCourt’s historic 1969 ruling in the Tinker case, in which the Court ruled that school officials couldn’t prevent students from expressing theiropinions on school grounds, as long as they didn’t (a) cause a material orsubstantial disruption of the school environment, or (b) intrude on the rightsof others” (faq). For many years this decision enabled students to publish essentially anything they found worth writing about, no matter how controversial at times. However, in 1988 this all changed when the, “Supreme Court, in a narrow 5-3 vote, ruled that the principal of Hazelwood East High School was justified incensoring a series of controversial articles in his school’s newspaper, The Spectrum” (faq). This decision forever changed the nature of high school newspapers. As a result, administrators and school boards now have a great deal of influence when it comes to determining what is and isn’t acceptable material in school-sponsored publications and events. This unfortunately has limited the ability of students to voice their opinions and has curbed their ability to write about certain pressing topics. This censorship in high school newspapers has brought about many repercussions and all around outrage from both faculty and students. The decision to allow administrations to review and edit newspapers is without a doubt one that is controversial, for not only does it violate students’ right to free speech, but it also places a huge amount of power on those in charge.
    There has been much literature published on the idea of censorship, and many opinions have been expressed on just how much censorship should be allowed; however, I believe that this literature has become somewhat dated, and lacks a fresh opinion from actual high school students. Therefore, I plan to explore just what high school students think about the idea of censorship, as well as how it affects their experiences in high school. I also want to look at what the basis for regulating articles is, and how administrations decide on what articles should and should not be published. By looking at previous cases of censorship and current cases, I want to see if there is any sort of consistency with what articles are censored.
  2. Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 7.25.14 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 7.25.14 PM
  3. This is one of the first scenes of the movie, and while we don’t know much about the characters yet, I still think this is somewhat melodramatic because we already see a distinction of class. As Stinger says melodrama, “thrived in part because its ideological dynamics were so well suited to the period,” and this scene definitely depicts the times accurately, where the white man was superior and wealthy.
    In addition, as Nowell-Smith says, in Kaplan's book Motherhood and representation : the mother inpopular culture and melodrama, "the address is from one bourgeois to another bourgeois” (61). I think that this scene already emphasizes the fact that this movie was meant to appeal to a certain type of class.
    Trying to relate this to the issue of pro life vs. pro choice, I think that it is clear in any speech, given by any major politician, that first and foremost it is important to pinpoint the kind of audience you are trying to appeal to. So just as Smith says that, "the address is from one bourgeois to another bourgeois," depending on which side you are debating, the address is from, pro-life/pro-choice to another pro-life/pro-choice.
  4. Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 7.36.13 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 7.36.13 PM
  5. This scene is melodramatic to me due to the fact that it emphasizes a lot of Pathos, which as Williams points out is a big part of melodrama. In this scene, Ben is looking at a picture of Elsie, dreaming about being with her, which evokes emotions in the viewer.
    As Jackie Byars says in All that Hollywood allows: re-reading gender in 1950s melodrama, "the male protagonist is at the film's center," and "women were conceived of only in terms of the domestic" (110, 116). I think this is quite clear in this scene, and becomes even more evident as the movie goes on. The women in the movie never play a main role and instead as Kaplan says, "they are assigned to the periphery of the narrative in these films" (62).
    Relating this to the issue of pro-choice/pro-life, I think that it is very clear that women do not actually play the main role in this debate. Instead, politicians and other influential leaders are the ones making the decisions, while women just deal with the outcomes. President Obama however believes that, "that women – not politicians – should be able to make personal, private health-care decisions, including whether to have an abortion," and yet he is still the one giving them this right (NARAL Pro-Choice America).
  6. Linda Williams notes 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.” In this scene we see slaves dancing and fooling around during their break, while the wealthy white men just watch in a proper and respectful fashion. Already we begin to see the difference between classes, one where the white man is superior.
    I think that this can be related to the issue of Pro-life because there is definitely animosity between both sides, and there is definitely name calling.
  7. Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 12.12.11 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 12.12.11 PM
  8. Here we see the South rallying under the Confederate flag. As Marc Bousquet says in his in his paper Harry Potter and the War Against Evil, melodrama can be used as a tool to organize public opinion, and while this is not completely obvious in my opinion, I still think it is worth mentioning that the movie is trying to turn the viewers bias towards the South for we only see this rallying of the troops in the South. This bias towards the South does become quite apparent later on in the movie though.
    I know that in class a lot of people talked about how this movie was just all-around ridiculous, and not suitable for a modern audience. However as Barbara Klinger says in Melodrama and meaning: history, culture, and the films of Douglas Sirk, "there has been nothing stable about the meaning ofhis melodramas; they have been subject at every cultural turn to the particularuse to which various institutions and social circumstances put them" (159). I decided to talk about this issue on this screenshot because when we look back at history now, most people sympathize with the North, but in the time that this movie was made, it was meant to appeal to the South, and while we may think that this movie is all in all ridiculous, people who watched it at the time found much in common with it.
    In relation to the issue of pro-life/pro-choice, I think that as time goes on the issue and the topics being addressed on the issue will change. As our society advances, I think it is safe to say that the issue will only become more complicated. In addition, it is clear that advocates of both sides try to make people feel sympathy for their issue. For example, Obama told the crowd, "When you read about some of these laws, you want to check the calendar, you want to make sure you’re still living in 2013," clearly trying to organize public opinion in his favor (The Washington Post).
  9. Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 8.10.37 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 8.10.37 PM
  10. This scene is definitely melodramatic because it victimizes women. As Williams says, “melodrama has been classified in film studies as a sentimental genre for women,” and this definitely makes women look helpless. Women could relate to these characters because most of their families were off to war as well, so they immediately felt a sense of connection with these women.
    In addition, JackieByars in, All that Hollywood allows: re-reading gender in 1950s melodrama, mentions that, "whatwe now know as “women issues” were everywhere evident but nowhere articulated,and there was certainly no institutionalized efforts to cope with them” (57). I found this quote to be relevant and also rather humorous because in this movie we do see the issues that women faced, but they are in fact no articulated, and the movie seems to focus more on the men.
    I think that this can also be related to the issue of pro-life/pro-choice because in both sides of the issue, women are definitely victimized. I am more concerned with the issue of pro-choice, so I think that characterization and victimization of women is much more relevant there. For example, "the President referenced two women that he said faced health problems with fertility and cancer, and claimed that they had found help at Planned Parenthood facilities" (CNS news).
  11. Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 12.20.51 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 12.20.51 PM
  12. To add to my previously mentioned point of how the South was victimized, the screen shot above really emphasizes this point as the soldiers are shown starving and dying throughout the scenes. The North is characterized as evil, with the South shown as helpless.
    In addition to add to the idea that this may seem ridiculous to some people now, BarbaraKlinger in Melodrama and meaning: history, culture, and the films of DouglasSirk also says that, "Meaning itself becomes something we cannotdetermine “once and for all,” but a volatile, essentially cultural phenomenathat shifts with the winds of time” (159).
    Again this is relevant to the issue of pro-choice because as times change, so will the issues associated with the topic.

  13. Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 12.28.19 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 12.28.19 PM
  14. In Communist Manifesto Marx and Engles talk about the power of the newly form Bourgeoisie; however, Marx also mentions how, “with the development of industry, the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more” (19). The proletariat therefore holds the power in some cases due to their majority, and this is obvious in the scene above where we see African Americans using ballet stuffing and in turn halting the democratic process.
    As Michael Haysand Anastasia Nikolopoulou say in Melodrama : the cultural emergence of a genre, “Clearly, the generic mutability ofmelodrama is a sign that it responds more to historical than to aestheticdemands…” (xiv). I think that this quote is relatable to the screenshot, because this image definitely does have a lot to do with what was going on historically at the time.
    This again is relevant to the issue of pro-choice because the issue deals with what is currently going on.
  15. Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 8.47.12 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 8.47.12 PM
  16. As Williams makes quite clear during her discussion of The Birth of a Nation and the Anti-Tom novels, African Americans were depicted as being ultimately bad. She mentions how The Birth of Nation, “ links new feelings about race to equally new feelings of national identity, based on an overt celebration of white supremacy” (100). In the scene above, a newly elected African American congressman put his feet up on the desk much to the dismay of the audience. This act was meant to show the audience just how awful it would be if African Americans were to get political autonomy.
    As Michael Haysand Anastasia Nikolopoulou say in Melodrama : the cultural emergence of a genre, “The capacity of melodrama tosimulatenously incorporate the discourses of imperialism, nationalism, andclass and gender conflict points not only to the genre’s structuralmalleability but to the role it played in approaching and “resolving” thehistorical complexities that lie behind its intersecting horizons” (X). I think that this quote definitely adequalty represents the screenshot above and the movie as a whole, for the movie definitely deals with many different issues of the times.
    To relate this to the issue of abortion, I think it is safe to say that there are many different aspects that go into the debate, and I definitely think that melodrama helps accentuate these points.
  17. Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 3.48.50 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 3.48.50 PM
  18. Williams in her novel talks about a concept known as agnition which is the basic idea that there is one side that faces another side. In this scene we see an African American Union storm a town in the South. This depicts the struggle between the north and south. In addition, this makes the North look like the villain because they are attacking innocent civilians, and sets up the idea of good vs. evil.
    As Michael Haysand Anastasia Nikolopoulou say in Melodrama : the cultural emergence of a genre, “Melodrama is a drama of “excess” inwhich life choices seem finally to have little to do with the surface realitiesof a situation and much more to do with an intense inner drama of consciousnessand a “manchaestic struggle of good and evil” (vi).
    Again this idea of good vs. evil is quite evident in the fight for pro-choice. For example, President Obama during his presidential campaign said, ""McCain, he's running on a platform to ban abortion, even in cases of rape and incest," Obama's ad says. "Sleazy ads, anti-choice, that's John McCain" (Huffington Post). This definitely makes McCain look like the evil.
  19. Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 8.51.04 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 8.51.04 PM
  20. As Williams says in Chapter 3, The Birth of a Nation made, “the black man into an object of white fear and loathing” (99). In the scene above, the black man is turned exactly into this description when he is seen chasing this woman in an attempt to marry her. The women eventually jumps off a cliff, again victimizing women, and making, “the black man” look like the villain.
    Again there this is this idea of good vs. evil which I think I have already explained.
  21. Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 9.00.59 PM
    Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 9.00.59 PM
  22. Lastly, Williams’s talks about a melodramatic technique where there is suspense the whole duration of the performance only to have the protagonist ride in to save the day, or basically have good conquered bad. In the scene 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. In addition, this also shows just how manipulative melodrama can be, because they turn the KKK, an obviously evil force, into something good.
    To add to this, JackieByars, in All that Hollywood allows: re-reading gender in 1950s melodrama, says that, "one approach to film melodramas has focused on their “happy endings,” arguingthat they operate as a safety valve for women unhappy in a capitalistpatriarchy” (63). In this movie we definitely see a happy ending for both of the women, so I think that this quote is definitely relative.