I was surprised to see that D. W. Griffith’s cinematic masterpiece, Birth of a Nation (1914) begins with a peek at Thaddeus Stevens, one of my American heroes. He is called “Stoneman” in the film, and is something of a villain, until he is redeemed at the end by revealing his deep hypocrisy about race, to wit, when it comes down to it, he would never allow his daughter (played by Lillian Gish) marry a mulatto.
It’s interesting to note the difference that 100 years makes: in Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), Stevens is a hero, a foresighted champion of racial equality and justice. Was Speilberg purposely making his Stevens look similar to Griffith’s Stoneman? And yes, it is true, Stevens wore an outrageous wig, having lost all of his hair during an illness when he was young.
I knew that Birth of a Nation was racist propaganda for the Southern view of Reconstruction, but still, I was not prepared for just how vicious it is. As one reviewer said, watching the film is “a torment,” similar to watching Nazi propaganda films, including the justly famous Triumph of the Will. The southerners are gallant Christians, defending their women like chivalric knights of old, and everyone, north and south, despises the negroes. The film is, despite itself, amazingly realistic at times, using African-Americans for bit roles and background extras, while white actors in blackface take the major “negro roles”: realistic in its depiction of the culture of slavery and Jim Crow, and I don’t mean in a favorable way. As Roger Ebert points out in his excellent review, this is only so because Griffith was so totally convinced of the rightness of his views – the gentle South, happy slaves, etc. – that it would never have occurred to him that his imagery implied their contradiction.
The print that I watched on Netflix includes a brief interview between Walter Huston and Griffith, both decked out in formal evening wear, in which Huston lobs softball questions to Griffith:
“Was the Klan necessary at that time?”
“Yes, Walter, it was necessary, at that time.”
There you have it. The freeing of the slaves, untutored and unready for civilization, unleashed upon the traumatized South a tyranny, egged on by unscrupulous Northern carpetbaggers who manipulated the negroes to their ends. The Klan had to step in to restore civilization. Thus, Reconstruction ended, and Jim Crow began. In Griffith’s mythology, even Stevens sees the wisdom of it, returning to a policy that Griffith is convinced Lincoln would have favored.
There is a lot of high-toned stuff in this film too: several anti-war pleas, including an image of Christ at the end, and a denunciation of artistic censorship. Yes, if only the war had been averted. Perhaps the South would still be carrying on with its slaves! And yes, censorship is bad, The film was instantly immensely controversial, and the NAACP in some cities did call for censorship of the most racially offensive scenes. I say, let it all hang out. The NAACP has had the last laugh on D.W.
Did I say that the film is fantastic? It is. It is gripping, a wonder of cinema so great, I found it hard to believe it was from 1914 it seems so contemporary in many respects. The battle scenes are stunning; the acting, though melodramatic, is nevertheless powerful. Gish gushes beautifully. It is one of the most innovative and influential films ever made, and the reasons why are obvious if you watch any other film from 1914. Some scenes:
The very first sequence. With the introduction of black slavery, the seeds of disunion were sown. Only the Civil War produced a truly united nation. True enough, but somehow it seems here that it is the fault of the Africans! As Melville put it in Benito Cereno:
“You are saved, Don Benito,” cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained;
“You are saved; what has cast such a shadow upon you?”
“The Negro.” There was silence, while the moody man sat, slowly and unconsciously gathering his mantle about him, as if it were a pall.
It’s all the curse of the negro…
The first part of the film is about the run-up to the Civil War and the actual conflict. The real story is Part II, Reconstruction. Stoneman/Stevens has a mulatto mistress, his housekeeper, an historical fact. She manipulates him (lust seems to be a big motivation) to take a hard and brutal policy position towards the defeated South, hoping to revenge her people. Stoneman’s right-hand man, another mulatto, is going to be made puppet governor of South Carolina in order to better implement the destruction of the Old South.
A black Union soldier chases a white woman who, fearing for her honor, leaps to her death from a precipice. The Klan organizes to capture the man, otherwise protected by Stoneman’s puppet. They give him a “trial.”
The scene of the KKK dumping his body at the governor’s office is, I think, supposed to be taken as a brilliant example of justice delivered, but in one of those inadvertent truth-telling images, it is a brutal image of the Klan’s racial tyranny.
To finish off the local white gentry, the savage negroes are let loose to pillage and rapine in the town. The Klan rides in, just like the cavalry, to save the day. Of course, the actual events were more like the reverse, i.e., sustained campaigns of racial cleansing by organized whites to rid entire regions of black farmers who owned land.
The blacks are vicious and terrifying, without regard to sex, of the victim or the perpetrator. Here is Lillian Gish being threatened by a former servant.
One of the local gentry kills a black man in an altercation while he was being arrested for harboring Klan members. He manages to escape with the assistance of his loyal former house-slaves, and flees with his daughter and some friends to a remote cabin where he wants to wait for things to call down. The cabin is inhabited by two white former Union soldiers. Racial solidarity prevails. It would take a few more years for the word “Aryan” to fall into disrepute.
In a climactic scene, the father grabs the hair of his daughter, preparing to shoot her, rather than have her be captured alive and be despoiled by the black troops attacking his cabin hideout.
All’s well that ends well. Hero and heroine reunited at last.
Order is restored, and the next time there is an election, the Klan is on hand to make sure that the Negroes vote properly. Yet another image that surely was not intended to seem as it now does to us.