D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation is considered as the birth of the American film industry. The film’s effect on the film medium and culture was so immense that that the repercussions are still felt in the lives of people of African stock.
The film stands out on many fronts technically. It contained the first scene shot at night with phosphorous light. It was through this film that new developments in editing and camera movement were executed.
But culturally, it proved disastrous for people of color such that even later in the year of release, controversies surrounded it.
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The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) protested the screening of the film concerned about the negative portrayals of Black men and women.
Executive Secretary of the NAACP Mary Childs Nerney submitted, “the harm it (the film) is doing the colored people cannot be estimated. I hear echoes of it wherever I go and I have no doubt that this was in the mind of the people who are producing it.”
The portrayal of Africans as savages, mindless beings who ravage white women was so potent that as late as the 1970s, the Ku Klux Klan was using the film to make whites anxious about their supposed vulnerability leading to recruitment to the Klan.
The over three-hour long film is set just before the outbreak of the American Civil War with the first half ending with Lincoln’s assassination.
The second half focuses on the reconstruction. The filmmakers portray the Klan as the heroes of the war. It depicts South Carolina occupied by black union solders who push white people off the side walk while being sexually aggressive to white women.
In one scene, a white girl jumped to her death to avoid being pursued by a Black male who desired her for marriage.
When newly elected Black legislators to the State House of Representatives are depicted, they are shown barefoot, drinking whisky and eating chicken. The producers assert the electoral victory was due to rigging and disenfranchising of whites.
As the film concluded, the Klan is shown mapping out how to take control of the town. On the next election day, the Klan form a line to intimidate Black voters.
Despite its overt racism against people of color, The Birth of a Nation was hugely popular. It remained the highest grossing film of all time until it was toppled by ‘Gone with the Wind’ in 1939.
It’s also the first film to be shown in the White House of Woodrow Wilson. If for nothing, this film re-entrenched the fear some whites harbor against Blacks which cops who shoot dead even babies as well as males and females cite as reason for their violent act.
It also showed that even when Blacks get elected to office legitimately, the white minority still seek to annul the gains chalked.
And yet again, the white woman is the weaponized tool for the Klan and other white aggressors. All they have to say is that the Black unarmed men they attack flirted, were intimate or raped their wives, sisters or associates to justify their act.
While The Birth of Nation was the film with impressive technological input, its propagandist attack against melanated people has sadly infested many more who reckon they are racially superior causing great impediment for people with African heritage at school, work places, hospitals and in communities.