Birth of a Nation

Monday, April 26, 2004
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The New Republic gives us a “classic review” of 1915′s Birth of a Nation. Since it’s a “pay-only” article, I shall include the whole text below.

Only at TNR Online | Post date 04.24.04

[The Birth of a Nation was a cinematic phenomenon. The world's first feature film, its technical accomplishments were considered revolutionary, and its box office record would not be surpassed for twenty years. The film's endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan sent the hate group's membership through the roof, sparked protest, and incited riots. When the film was first released, Francis Hackett argued in The New Republic that The Birth of a Nation "degrades the censors that passed it and the white race that endures it."]

March 20, 1915

The Birth of a Nation, a motion picture drama in two acts, founded on Thomas Dixon’s story, The Clansman. Presented at the Liberty Theater, New York.

If history bore no relation to life, this motion picture drama could well be reviewed and applauded as a spectacle. As a spectacle it is stupendous. It lasts three hours, represents a staggering investment of time and money, reproduces entire battle scenes and complex historic events, amazes even when it wearies by its attempt to encompass the Civil War. But since history does bear on social behavior, “The Birth of a Nation” cannot be reviewed simply as a spectacle. It is more than a spectacle. It is an interpretation, the Rev. Thomas Dixon’s interpretation, of the relations of the North and South and their bearing on the negro.

Were the Rev. Thomas Dixon a representative white Southerner, no one could criticize him for giving his own version of the Civil War and the Reconstruction period that followed. If he possessed the typical Southern attitude, the paternalistic, it would be futile to read a lecture on it. Seen from afar, such an attitude might be deemed reactionary, but at any rate it is usually genial and humane and protective, and because it has experience back of it, it has to be met with some respect. But the attitude Mr. Dixon possesses and the one for which he forges corroboration in history is a perversion due largely to his personal temperament. So far as I can judge from this film, as well as from my recollection of Mr. Dixon’s books, his is the sort of disposition that foments a great deal of the trouble in civilization. Sometimes in the clinical laboratory the doctors are reputed to perform an operation on a dog so that he loses the power to restrain certain motor activities. If he is started running in a cage, the legend goes, he keeps on running incessantly, and nothing can stop him but to hit him on the head with a club. There is a quality about everything Mr. Dixon has done that reminds me of this abnormal dog. At a remote period of his existence it is possible that he possessed a rudimentary faculty of self-analysis. But before that faculty developed he crystallized in his prejudices, and forever it was stunted. Since that time, whenever he has been stimulated by any of the ordinary emotions, by religion or by patriotism or by sex, he responded with a frantic intensity. Energetic by nature, the forces that impel him are doubly violent because of this lack of inhibition. Aware as a clergyman that such violence is excessive, he learned in all his melodramas to give them a highly moral twang. If one of his heroes is about to do something peculiarly loathsome, Mr. Dixon thrusts a crucifix in his hand and has him roll his eyes to heaven. In this way the very basest impulses are given the sanction of godliness, and Mr. Dixon preserves his own respect and the respect of such people as go by the label and not by the rot-gut they consume.

In “The Birth of a Nation” Mr. Dixon protests sanctimoniously that his drama “is not meant to reflect in any way on any race or people of to-day.” And then he proceeds to give to the negro a kind of malignity that is really a revelation of his own malignity.

Passing over the initial gibe at the negro’s smell, we early come to a negrophile senator whose mistress is a mulatto. As conceived by Mr. Dixon and as acted in the film, this mulatto is not only a mister to the senator’s lust but a woman of inordinate passion, pride and savagery. Gloating as she does over the promise of “negro equality,” she is soon partnered by a male mulatto of similar brute characteristics. Having established this triple alliance between the “uncrowned king,” his diabolic colored mistress and his diabolic colored ally, Mr. Dixon shows the revolting processes by which the white South is crushed “under the heel of the black South.” “Sowing the wind,” he calls it. On the one hand we have “the poor bruised heart” of the white South, on the other “the new citizens inflamed by the growing sense of power.” We see negroes shoving white men off the sidewalk, negroes quitting work to dance, negroes beating a crippled old white patriarch, negroes slinging up “faithful colored servants” and flogging them till they drop, negro courtesans guzzling champagne with the would-be head of the Black Empire, negroes “drunk with wine and power,” negroes mocking their white master in chains, negroes “crazy with joy” and terrorizing all the whites in South Carolina. We see the blacks flaunting placards demanding “equal marriage.” We see the black leader demanding a “forced marriage” with an imprisoned and gagged white girl. And we see continually in the background the white Southerner in “agony of soul over the degradation and ruin of his people.”

Encouraged by the black leader, we see Gus the renegade hover about another young white girl’s home. To hoochy-coochy music we see the long pursuit of the innocent white girl by this lust-maddened negro, and we see her fling herself to death from a precipice, carrying her honor through “the opal gates of death.”

Having painted this insanely apprehensive picture of an unbridled, bestial, horrible race, relieved only by a few touches of low comedy, “the grim reaping begins.” We see the operations of the Ku Klux Klan, “the organization that saved the South from the anarchy of black rule.” We see Federals and Confederates uniting in a Holy War “in defense of their Aryan birthright,” whatever that is. We see the negroes driven back, beaten, killed. The drama winds up with a suggestion of “Lincoln’s solution”–back to Liberia–and then, if you please, with a film representing Jesus Christ in “the halls of brotherly love.”

My objection to this drama is based partly on the tendency of the pictures but mainly on the animus of the printed lines I have quoted. The effect of these lines, reinforced by adroit quotations from Woodrow Wilson and repeated assurances of impartiality and goodwill, is to arouse in the audience a strong sense of the evil possibilities of the negro and the extreme propriety and godliness of the Ku Klux Klan. So strong is this impression that the audience invariably applauds the refusal of the white hero to shake hands with a negro, and under the circumstances it cannot be blamed. Mr. Dixon has identified the negro with cruelty, superstition, insolence and lust.

We know what a yellow journalist is. He is not yellow because he reports crimes of violence. He is yellow because he distorts them. In the region of history the Rev. Thomas Dixon corresponds to the yellow journalist. He is a clergyman, but he is a yellow clergyman. He is yellow because he fecklessly distorts negro crimes, gives them a disproportionate place in life, and colors them dishonestly to inflame the ignorant and the credulous. And he is especially yellow, and quite disgustingly and contemptibly yellow, because his perversions are cunningly calculated to flatter the white man and provoke hatred and contempt for the negro.

Whatever happened during Reconstruction, this film is aggressively vicious and defamatory. It is spiritual assassination. It degrades the censors that passed it and the white race that endures it.

Francis Hackett

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