Enduring D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation:
Do Black Lives Matter?
“The past is never dead. Its not even past.”
Birth of a Nation, the cinematic achievement of enduring racial stereotypes, continues to influence the narratives of American historical melodrama almost a century after its release and is testament to D.W. Griffith’s ability to tap into America’s conflicted psychic relationship with slavery. In 1915, Griffith used current tensions between Blacks migrating north for better opportunities and Whites unwilling to share theiropportunities, to cinematographically reinstate antebellum social and political atavism. Combining Civil War photography of battlefields strewn with dead White soldiers, President Wilson’s declaration of authenticity, and the enlistment of a contemporary film star as the imperiled White heroine, Griffith revived the southern justification for slavery as protection of virtuous White females and the restoration of ‘order’ as presented in his sanitized representation of Southern aristocracy. The author of The Clansman (on which Griffith’s film was based), Thomas Dixon, reveled in its triumph. "The real purpose of my film," he confessed gleefully, "was to revolutionize Northern audiences that would transform every man into a Southern partisan for life.” KKK membership soared immediately after viewing “Birth of a Nation,” and rampant White violence against Black men spread across the South. Gangs of Whites roamed city streets attacking blacks and in Lafayette, Indiana, a White man leaving the theatre, killed a Black teenager after seeing the movie (Wormser). Black people were portrayed in Griffith’s film as a plague to be abhorred and extinguished. As he convincingly presented his prosecuting evidence, Griffith’s verdict was clear: Black lives do not matter. 100 years later, as Black and White tensions are again at the fore, Hollywood is once again mirroring these growing tensions in America. Yet a century after Griffith’s spectacle, American cinema audiences have an opportunity to consider alternatives to Griffith’s verdict.
The murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012 was the tipping point for many Americans, Black and White, increasingly aware through videos on social media and television, of the violent killing of young unarmed Black men. While many disillusioned by the lack of justice filled social media with statements like “We knew (Zimmerman) was never going to be convicted of killing a Black child,” Alicia Garza, an employment rights organizer, had another perspective: “I was sad, I was angry, I was rageful,” she says. “I have a brother who’s 25, and he’s 6 feet tall and lives in a majority-white community. It could have been him.” Garza posted a “love letter to Black folks” on Facebook. She wrote that “their murder should always come as a shock,” and that she “would not let the state numb that for (her).” She ended with “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.” 300 miles away, a friend and previous co-worker, Patrisse Cullors posted on Facebook, “I hope y’all are loving on yourselves today.’” Cullors was moved by Garza’s post and, on a whim, decided to hashtag her sentiments “#blacklivesmatter.” (King)
In Oprah Winfrey’s historical melodrama, Beloved, Baby Suggs Holy, the moral center of the narrative melodrama, urges her congregation to “Love your flesh, love it hard. Yonder, they do not love our flesh.” Baby Suggs’ pronouncement informs her congregation and the viewing audience, that from the perspective of a people terrorized by the institution of slavery, Black lives have never mattered in the framing of American democracy. Baby Suggs offers hope and salvation to Blacks robbed of their humanity, at the same time reminding them to “Weep for the dead.” As American’s tortuous relationship with slavery began almost 400 years ago, there are countless thousands of dead slaves for whom her congregation can weep. Baby Suggs is one of the many complex characters in this narrative referencing historical fact, exposing Griffith’s hypocrisy of Black stereotypes as “clownish coons, troubled "tragic" mulattoes, and brutal black bucks.” The tormented existence of black lives under the domain of White man’s tyranny dramatically expressed by Beloved’s cast of richly-developed characters, dramatizes the physical torture of slavery and the living psychological terror that haunts not just the enslaved, but their children, and those who would love them. The lead character, Sethe, in the Beloved narrative, vividly portrays the emotional and psychological terror of slavery carved deep in her being. Throughout the film, Sethe recounts the horror of Schoolteacher documenting the “mossy-teethed boys” that steal the milk from her breasts. Pregnant, her bleeding flesh ripped open by Schoolteacher’s whip, Sethe finally escapes her tortured enslavement in Kentucky. Permitted a brief period of freedom in Ohio with the joy of her children beside her, the sight of Schoolteacher’s approaching wagon threatens her hard won freedom and instantaneously resuscitates the unquenchable horror Sethe thought she’d escaped. In one desperate act of panic, Sethe does what no other human being would dread to contemplate: She kills (or attempts to kill) her children. In that one brief moment of madness, the real terror of slavery is alive to the audience. Could we imagine the experience of terror so unspeakable that ripping breathe from life is the only escape? Sethe will never escape the result of her action or the psychological trauma of her own body brutally raped, the milk viciously sucked from her breasts by heinous white enslavers. As a woman continuously beaten by this depraved system of hate, the merciful act of killing her children to save them from enslavement marks Sethe as a woman beneath the respect of other mothers who know not her pain, and asks the audience to consider the suffering inherent in making such a decision. Can anyone that hasn’t experienced it, know the trauma of slavery? Can anyone that hasn’t survived the horrific struggle of enslavement imagine rising up every day, laboring endlessly without compensation, with the searing tyranny of the overseer’s whip on your already scarred back? Of course they can not. Sethe’s portrayal of a Black woman suffering the brutal realities of slavery is earth-moving, stereotype-shattering. No film previous to Beloved endeavors to express the emotional anguish and incomprehensible endurance of an enslaved mother persevering the execrable tortures of slavery. Though no longer pursued by those who would enslave her, Sethe can never be free. Long after emancipation, reconstruction, and the futile endeavor to co-exist in a world of white men’s rules, Sethe will wear the scars of slavery on her very soul. The ‘Chokeberry Tree’ planted on her back is the physical reminder that she will truly never find refuge from slavery’s tyranny. Sethe lives only to endure the suffering she cannot escape. The trauma that endures to haunt her is shared by those who know and try to love her, but can Sethe love herself? Can anyone, continuously physically tortured, sexually violated, and psychologically abused, ever be free? As Stamp Paid says to Paul D, “Just ‘cause you don’t see the chains, don’t mean they aren’t there — Long as its a white man’s world, that’s where we’ll stay.”
Beloved was the first opportunity that many Americans had to cinematographically experience an historical narrative depicting the psychological horrors of an enslaved mother in America. Winfrey’s Sethe is a richly-developed character of soulful complexity unparalleled by any of the characters, black or white, in Griffith’s film. In American cinema, there is no precedent for the psychological trauma or the heart-wrenching story of Sethe victimized by the hideous sin of slavery. As a result, Winfrey’s portrayal of Sethe was not one American audiences were able to believe. Black slaves in Birth Of A Nation were not given human stories to tell, or human feelings to express. Griffith’s depiction of Black slaves, devoid of their own narrative, portrayed as either happy, mindless fools or chaotic, debased thugs, was proof that Black lives don’t matter in the American narrative. That White audiences didn’t question the validity of these narratives suggests an unwillingness to know the truth about slavery, confirming too, that while audiences are filled with well-meaning people, for many White audiences, Black lives didn’t matter. As Griffith’s narrative yet provides context for a color-coded America conflicted by fears of Black and White equality, the validity of Stamp Paid’s statement cannot be denied. That a movie like Beloved was produced at all though, is evidence of the crack in Griffith’s mirror of slavery.
Set in the same historical context as Beloved, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave is based on the personal historical narrative of Solomon Northrup, a free Black man living in the emancipated North. An educated man, Solomon enjoys the domestic, social if not political equality of Whites in his civilized realm of Saratoga, New York in 1841. Solomon’s experience as a free man does not prepare him for the trickery of two well-presented white men who flatter him into accepting a lucrative opportunity. Solomon’s naiveté allows him to be kidnapped and because of his skin color, he is believably presented as an escaped slave and sold into the horrific institution of which he seems to have little if any prior knowledge. As the narrative of a free man from the north experiencing the horrors of slavery on a southern plantation, Solomon’s narrative is one that offers an opportunity for American audiences to witness the horrors of slavery from the perspective of a man who might share similar values as their own. As a man born with Black skin, even freedom is not enough to keep Solomon safe.
While Solomon Northrup was a free man, treated as such in the town he was known and respected, as soon as he is stripped of his identity in the slavery south, his claims of freeman fall on deaf ears and he is immediately relegated to suffer the horrors of slavery. Its an ongoing shock for Solomon, who, having enjoyed a meaningful existence of his own creation in the north, realizes that because of the color of his skin, his life has no worth aside from the hard labor it can produce.
Solomon’s narrative is framed in the contemporary context of White men and women of the pre-Civil War North and as such, his manner, words and perspectives are better understood by contemporary audiences today. The viewer is able to relatewith Solomon’s experience of peaceful tranquility in his northern life of freedom as well as the vicious transformation to the hell of slavery, because the life Solomon previously enjoyed could have been the life of any person in a free society. The audience accepts Solomon’s story as fact as they witness his objective perceptions, transferring the realm of shock, pain and terror of slavery of Solomon’s oppression to the audience as well. Solomon’s previous life of freedom allows him that objective eye on the barrage of horrific conditions he experiences. He will not allow himself to be a victim of the horrors that consume the tyrannized Black slaves with whom he toils, eats and suffers. Solomon’s objectivity and constant denial of the vicious reality pervading his life, keeps him safe. As Solomon maintains the dream of freedom he previously enjoyed, he is able to sustain the hope of gaining freedom once more. The slaves around him, never knowing the joy of freedom, can’t hope for its salvation. Their lives have no destination for escaping the enslavement into which they were born. The only freedom these enslaved Blacks can imagine is death. As Solomon experiences the sadistic tyranny of Master Edwin Epps, his hope too, is eroded. The audience witnesses the horror through Solomon’s eyes, as he suffers the wretched existence of slavery and witnesses the continual cruelty and sexual abuse of Patsey. As his own hand is commanded to wield the flesh-ripping whip against Patsey to safeguard his own torture, Solomon too is debased. Epps is not the kind, benevolent Master of Griffith’s falsified narrative, but a tyrannical beast that reigns with the same self-righteous tyranny of White supremacy justified in Griffith’s narrative. Of Epps’ conviction there is no doubt: Black lives don’t matter.
12 Years A Slave is one of the few fully developed narratives of the American slave story providing context for audiences to witness the cruel relationship between black slaves and a tyrannical white master. By providing fastidiously detailed accounts of the daily lives of enslaved Black people and the grueling labor of picking cotton with continually rising quotas, Solomon provides evidence of the forced labor often resulting in the overseer’s vicious whip, and the demoralizing conditions in which these human beings with Black skin eke an existence. Even though Solomon’s objective account of American slavery from a free man’s perspective provides unflinching details of sexual and psychological abuse, his narrative is more easily received as evidence of slavery’s vicious inhumanity than Sethe’s post-slavery trauma in Beloved, precisely because of his objectivity. As Solomon’s narrative is void of sentimentality or emotion (until his return to freedom) the audience can receive his complex narrative more as fact than fiction and believe the horrendous story he relates.
That Solomon’s well documented narrative will be considered a primer to many Americans regarding the horrors of slavery and the terror inflicted on the humanity it claimed, is again proof that Black lives didn’t really matter in 19th century America. Even though Solomon eventually regains his freedom, he emerges from 12 years of captivity a broken man, haunted by the terrorism of slavery. And though Solomon pursued the criminal prosecution of his kidnappers, his case is eventually dismissed because he is after all, a Black man in a White man’s court. That it took 150 years for Northrop's narrative to find presence on the big screen is deplorable but also representative of the American public’s denial of Black live’s suffering as equally unacceptable as White live’s suffering. Yet the fact that Solomon’s narrative is finally being delivered to American film audiences 150 years after his account was published, is proof that while progress is slow, Black lives are beginning to matter to Hollywood.
While film continues to reference historical narrative, the on-going barrage of imagery in real time provided by televised and personally video-taped media, is an active force in revising stereotypes and misrepresentations of blacks and whites in America. Televised coverage of 1960’s civil rights marches exposing white police brutality, opened the eyes of many Americans to the unfair treatment of blacks, providing a new mirror in which Americans, and the world, could reflect on black and white tensions. The Black Power movement destroyed Griffith’s standard of a disorganized, inferior black population. Today, daily unscripted events in real time offer new scenarios of Black and White interaction for viewers to consider. As live media continuously offers opportunities to reconsider the conflicted relationship of Black and White Americans, Griffith’s stereotypes are both eroded and strengthened. As new generations of filmmakers and audiences are influenced by increasingly diverse demographics, sophisticated viewers search for viable fresh narratives, not a recasting of outdated stereotypes no longer representative of the world we live in. Enter Django Unchained.
The audacity claimed by Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is further proof that Griffith’s narrative still holds tremendous sway over cinematic expectations of the slavery narrative and more importantly, audience acceptance of black actors sharing power roles with white actors. Dismissed by many as a revenge film and a “blood fest,” Tarantino audaciously points the self-righteous finger back at White American audiences still holding fast to the Griffith hierarchy of White over Black. The enslaved character of Django, shackled when we meet him as he endures the long journey to a new owner, has to be coaxed by Schultz to explore his newfound freedom when released. Schultz’s reason for freeing Django is purely self-serving and is irrelevant to the color of Django’s skin as Schultz informs Django that killing “bad white guys” is his legal profession and that he has freed Django solely for the purpose of identifying a particularly profitable band of ‘bad guys’. When Django exhibits a natural talent for marksmanship, Schultz recognizes an opportunity and prevails on Django to become his partner. This is the first major disconnect for audiences enslaved by Griffith’s command to respect the White over Black hierarchy. While Schultz’s color-blindness is believable because of his citizenry in a country void of Black stereotypes or slavery, many white audiences cannot suspend their biased belief systems to accept the possibility of a Black man considered the equal of a White man in the pre-Civil War south. When Django expresses "what's not to like?” regarding the prospect of shooting “bad White guys” as a bounty hunter, his statement becomes open territory for labels of “terrorist” or “revenge kiiller” by Griffith-schooled audiences. Not once in the carefully-curated executions of warranted ‘bad guys’ or vindictive shootings in the Candyland fortress, does Django express the “glee” of the sadistic Master Epps as he is beating Patsey close to death in the Solomon Northrup narrative, nor that of Thomas Dixon, the racist author of The Clansman. Tarantino's brilliance in choosing Django’s color-blind ally is a clever joke on the movie’s detractors: Schultz’s German disregard for Black bias allows Django the freedom to develop his character and emancipate himself. By putting Django in the roll of bounty hunter and training him appropriately for that role, it's believable the Django could become a killing expert. That Django doesn't use his expertise to kill errantly as did the American slave owners who ripped open the backs and lynched countless men and women in the tortured institution of slavery, is seemingly irrelevant for the offended viewers. The outrage over Django, a poised Black man who eventually outwits a tyrannical White slaveowner in antebellum Mississippi, is in the destruction of the precedented stereotypes that Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation intended to resuscitate. The roar of double standard is deafening. While Django’s skin color relegates his character to the lot of “clownish coon” or “brutal black buck” in Griffith’s handbook, Tarantino’s Django is the epitome of cool; poised, calculating and proficient. Yet here is a Black man killing White people! Poised or not, many choose to see this portrayal as outrageous because… White lives matter! Griffith’s film endures.
While the abolition of slavery 150 years ago was intended to create a path of equality for emancipated Black slaves to join White Americans in the nation built by the forced labor of those slaves, Americans continue to deny the twisted context of slavery in our country’s historical development. Understandably, its a complicated matter. As slavery was an acceptable institution for 250 years in our country and the backbone of our country’s economic development, opinion and embarrassment still decide the balance between fact and fiction in American history. As American politicians readily point their fingers at malicious slave-holding regimes around the world, looking back at our own history is an issue left in the dark. Filmmakers are making use of these darkened spaces, offering an environment in which to reconsider our conflicted past by presenting America’s history to film audiences for reconsideration of the facts and perspectives previously served. That a number of cinematic adaptations of the slavery/American Civil War story are being offered to challenge the sanitized history of Griffith’s melodrama, is evidence that this unresolved issue is a contemporary American one.
The current contextual crisis confronting Americans fifty years after the Civil Rights movement brings a new generation to the table to confront the issue of police brutality against young Black men, and it isn't because of the unflinching effort of white Americans to bring equality to Blacks that this issue is at the fore. Americans tortured for centuries because of their skin color are standing together and raising their voices in opposition. These are not the Blacks populating Griffith’s narrative, chaotic and purposeless, but Blacks united with the objective of gaining the one thing all White Americans take for granted, freedom. The same freedom enjoyed by Americans with White skin. The developing movement of Black Lives Matter confirms the cinematic context that Black lives haven’t always mattered in our country, and that attitudes developed as a result of these ‘historical’ slave narratives yet influence attitudes in contemporary culture. This growing awareness of Blacks disproportionately killed because of their skin color fuels the necessity for contemporary filmmakers to accurately represent our nation’s relationship to slavery then and now. As the films of McQueen, Winfrey and Tarantino reflect, timing is everything. An institution that began in our country 400 years ago, is finally getting some relevant attention.
The fact that Black Lives Matter is a contentious issue confronting many Americans confirms that meaningful dialogue about the Black and White relationship is a crucial consideration of current American concern. While intense dialogue is often the context for political and social change, Black and White Americans are still unable to sit at the same table to discuss these issues. Whether or not the populace can agree on a solution, the American Film Academy confirmed Patrisse Cullors' conviction that Black Lives Matter in 2014. As 12 Years A Slave received the Academy Award for Best Picture a century after Griffith’s narrative polarizing Black and White Americans, Hollywood’s nod suggests that while progress is slow and messy, America is ready to work on the relationship.
Wormser, Richard. (2002) Jim Crow Stories: D.W. Griffith’s THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915)
Educational Broadcasting Corporation
King, Jamilah (2013) #blacklivesmatter How three friends turned a spontaneous Facebook post into a global phenomenon. The California Sunday Magazine