White actors in blackface, depictions of slaves as grotesque beasts, and justifications of the KKK as a peace-keeping institution are among the many controversial features of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Civil War epic, The Birth of a Nation. The film hit the silver screen as one of Hollywood’s first major motion pictures with an unprecedented budget for its time. A cinematic marvel, it featured some of the earliest uses of panoramic long shots and night photography, as well as impressive large-scale battle scenes and sets. It was a commercial success and was even shown at the White House under President Woodrow Wilson. The film’s impact cannot be underestimated.
For all its innovations, The Birth of a Nation is equally laden with negative racial stereotypes. These stereotypes supported racially prejudiced dominant narratives–commonly held understandings about history or culture that gave preference to the dominant class. The film features white actors in blackface, and depicts black slaves as unruly, savage and subhuman. The film climaxes with a scene depicting an all-white heavenly multitude assembled around a fair-skinned Jesus. Aside from the racist images, the most influential ideas communicated in the film are that the Civil War was not about slavery; black participation in politics created anarchy in government and the KKK used reasonable methods to restore order to the South.
Like today’s entertainment, The Birth of a Nation channelled common interpretations of current events and solidified these ideas in popular culture. Racist conceptions of slave life and inaccurate understandings about the war were perpetuated in both entertainment and historical scholarship, and they have continued into the present day. In fact, I was taught that the Civil War was not about slavery in an American History class I took at a Texas community college. One of my professors once said that the Civil War was one of those rare instances when history was written by the loser (the former Confederacy).
The Birth of a Nation embodies several examples of dominant narratives. The most prominent narrative running throughout the film is the idea that institutional slavery and the establishment of the KKK were justified because blacks are somehow prone to violent behavior and need to be controlled. These are not simply out-dated prejudices, but are still very much alive. Consider the recent attempt to downplay the severity of slavery in response to the First Lady’s comments about the White House having been built by slaves or a recent police video in which an officer voiced the opinion that black people may have “violent tendencies.” These stereotypes feed dominant narratives that not only omit other voices, but fail to recognize each person as a unique living icon worthy of veneration. In this case, veneration looks like honoring someone by listening to a story that may run counter to popular prejudices or a dominant narrative.
I am guilty of participating in these negative dominant narratives. Some of these narratives I’ve mentioned in my blog, Approaching the Homeless as Icons of Christ or Problems to be Fixed. I often make assumptions about others and create caricatures out of them. When someone asks me for money, I judge their character or assume the worst about their situation. Like The Birth of a Nation, I allow my prejudices to influence my opinions about people and I distance myself because of it. Some of these narratives are rooted in white privilege - social benefits I have not earned yet nevertheless enjoy by virtue of my racial and social background.
Someone recently pointed out to me that while I can choose to not think about race or issues surrounding skin color, people of color do not have that privilege. I can choose to live in a “post-racial society” by surrounding myself with people for whom race is not a significant factor. I can construct a dominant narrative about the world that is free of racial tension. I can choose to close my ears to the experiences of those who have been disenfranchised or who have suffered because of institutional racism, simply because it does not affect me on a personal level. I am working to deconstruct this narrative nearly every day and I need grace to be open enough to listen to the stories of others.
St. Paul instructs his first century multi-cultural church, “Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:9). This is done—as he later says—when we “mourn with those who mourn,” and in my case, when I listen to other narratives.
This year, another film is being released titled The Birth of a Nation. It is set over thirty years before the Civil War and tells the story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion of 1831. Will this version receive as warm a welcome as the 1915 film? Unlike the original Birth of a Nation, Nat Turner’s story is not one of victory, and it did not result in the permanent liberation of slaves. Turner’s rebellion was bloody, wrought with complicated ethical questions and problems. Will those questions be probed, or will the film catch criticism for glorifying racially-motivated violence and sedition?
I believe the film will be an opportunity to listen to another story, one that runs counter to the dominant narrative. The Birth of a Nation tells a story defending the legitimacy of slavery and racism, and Nat Turner’s story challenges us to look at our history and the conditions of slavery that pushed people to revolution. For me, it will be yet another chance to deconstruct a dominant narrative. It will be an opportunity to mourn with those who have mourned throughout our history. It will be an opportunity to listen.
Redefining Black Film, Mark A. Reid
Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film, Ed Guerrero
“Arts of the Contact Zone,” Mary Louise Pratt
“The Social Construction of Race,” Ian Haney Lopez
Article by Jonathan Reavis