As a person of color, I find this film to be almost entirely offensive, and more than anything, sad. As a lover of movies, however, I understand the film’s enormous value. People who viewed “The Birth of a Nation” seem to attack its movie scenes based on a belief that to appreciate a film is to be entertained by it. That is not always true. “The Birth of a Nation,” while created to entertain, has left behind a true depiction of our history.
Many of its themes; race fear, race war, the myth of the Old South, myths of Black and White sexuality, remain relevant and troubling ninety-six years after the film’s release. “The Birth of a Nation” depicted the fall of the Old South and justifies the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. It exploits and depicts Black men as sex-crazed and violent, as well as preserving the antebellum stereotype of Black people as simple-minded, childlike and chaotic. White people are presented as well-mannered, well-educated and sophisticated.
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White folks, the film would have us believe, were fair slaveholders who cared for their childlike slaves, and who were wronged by a Northern occupation that allowed those slaves to become wicked masters. WHATEVER! The Old South had fallen; consequently, the institution of oppression used to maintain social order and status was swept away and replaced by an awkward and poorly managed system of reconstruction that sought to provide land, welfare and rights to the newly freed Black community.
White Southern men most likely felt emasculated by their failed rebellion, compounded with the nullification of Confederate currency, the division of land to provide for the Black community, and the threatening presence of a Black vote. It is crucial to remember that, while slavery was unquestionably the major reason for the Civil War, Southerners rarely saw slavery as a prime issue, and Northerners were largely in disagreement about it.
The Black community became a living symbol for Northern invasion, the “negro manipulated by the North” threatened to take away all White Southern male entitlement, which is land, political power, and wealth. The Ku Klux Klan, in the world of “The Birth of a Nation,” is the policing arm of the Southern White male to protect land, children, women and honor. It is, in fact, the last show of force to save the Southern honor. The south hero is a hooded-knight, former Confederate soldiers. Who is attempting to cling to an outmoded sense of honor and glory through terror, intimidation and propaganda. The Birth of a Nation” is a true view into how the KKK viewed itself and its cause. The truly disturbing thing about this film, then, isn’t its racially charged content, but its reception. “The Birth of a Nation” was a runaway hit, in spite of protests. Its success reveals the disturbing mentality of America in 1915, and I suspect that White viewers today, unable to overcome the film’s offensive content in order to understand its historical and technical value are reacting to an impulse to distance themselves from that mentality.
This is probably a good thing; however, to claim that the film no longer has relevance and portrays an extinct mode of thinking is shortsighted and quite simply wrong. Jim Crow and the Reconstruction era Klan are gone, but they have been replaced by an overwhelmingly Black and Latino prison population, project housing and a conglomerate of Neo-Nazi groups and right-wing religious organizations who continue to agitate on the grounds of race.
Every time we say, “this isn’t my problem,” or, “those people need to learn to take care of themselves,” or, “The war has been over for 150 years! Give it a rest,” we become the ignorant White Southerners of “The Birth of a Nation. ” The film records a mentality which has been with us for hundreds of years, is still with us, and will remain with us unless we pay attention to what our films are trying to tell us, in spite of themselves.