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Popular Culture & Politics

Writing History with Lighting

Movies entertain, amuse, and sometimes provoke serious thought about the human experience. Occasionally films also become compelling teachers of history. There is nothing inherently wrong with learning history through film. Learning history is valuable, no matter the medium of presentation. As the sixteenth-century philosopher Francis Bacon said, “history makes men wise.” Problems arise only if the history that is taught is distorted or sensationalized in order to create interesting characters, promote a dramatic storyline, or provide stunning visuals.

If history makes people wise, does bad history make us unwise? This is a question that haunts one of the most famous movies ever made. D. W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation was, without a doubt, a cinematic and artistic masterpiece. Indeed, in making this movie Griffith invented many film techniques still in use today. The movie—which drew huge audiences—was also a box office hit. In fact, in the history of the American film industry, the film is often credited with creating the modern mass audience for movies. Among its accolades is the fact that Birth of a Nation was the first movie to premiere in the White House. After its screening, President Woodrow Wilson is alleged to have said of it: “It is like writing history with lighting. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

Why, then, is this famous movie viewed by so few people? The film is an adaptation of a racist play written by Thomas Dixon—a longtime friend of President Wilson. Both the film and the play are unapologetic in their racism.

Using a classic melodramatic structure, the film details the lives of two families, one northern and the other southern, before the Civil War, during the war, and finally during Reconstruction. Antebellum life in the South is portrayed as marked by peace and prosperity; slaves are happy and well treated by their “kindly master.” The war, of course, disrupts the nature of things and brings great sadness to both families.

Griffith’s message comes in the third era, the years of Reconstruction. Here the film turns to a repudiation of Reconstruction in the South. Griffith was certainly not alone in his negative view of this program. After all, until the 1960s, most textbooks described Reconstruction as a failure. But the movie does not stop at attacking Reconstruction. In what might be considered the final act of this three-act film, Griffith turns to blatant racist propaganda. The freedmen are portrayed as worthless dependents living off the free food handed out by the Freedmen’s Bureau. They only want to dance and to coerce white women into sexual relations. More importantly, their penchant for violence has, according to the film, given them domination over white people. White people are the victims.

At the end of the film, the white people are saved by the Ku Klux Klan. It is the KKK meting out its version of justice and punishment that brings order to the South. But it is not just in the South that such a turn of events occurs: the film makes clear that “the former enemies North and South are united again in common defense of their Aryan birthright.” In other words, the old order is put back together.

Even in 1915, the movie was controversial. At the request of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, some scenes were edited out, and the movie censorship boards in a few cities prohibited its showing. In other places riots accompanied the screening of the film. These setbacks were small, as some 50 million people saw Birth of a Nation in the five years after it was released. Most historians believe that the film reinvigorated the early-twentieth-century KKK. Its influence on public opinion, however, can never be accurately measured. Thomas Dixon, the author of the original play, once declared that the purpose of the movie was to “revolutionize northern audiences that would transform every man into a southern partisan for life.” That did not happen, but the film provided millions of people with a rationalization for the Jim Crow laws that between 1877 and 1965 sought to enshrine racial segregation by constructing often-elaborate legal codes that prohibited consorting among the races.

Do you want to see the movie? Go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=tkmLs-UiNY.

Sources: Roger Ebert, “The Birth of a Nation,” http://www.rogerrbert.com/great-movie-the-birth-of-a nation-1915. Also see Richard Brody, “The Worst Thing About ‘Birth of a Nation’ Is How Good It Is,” New Yorker, February 1, 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/the-worst-thing-about-birth-of-a-nation-is-how-good-it-is.

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