As challenging as it is to watch The Birth of a Nation in the modern era, I’m really, really, really glad I not only had the chance to see it back in May 2006, but also that I took a chance and finally revisited it nine years later. I completely respect that some people don’t feel comfortable watching it, since I feel exactly the same way about rewatching Night and Fog. But in having watched this film not once but twice (so far), I’ve gained firsthand experience and authority to speak about it. Someone who’s only read about it, or seen the racist scenes by themselves, can’t have that kind of personal reaction. It’s like the difference between writing sex scenes when you’re a virgin, and writing sex scenes after you’ve made your sexual début. (I personally hate the term “losing your virginity,” for reasons far too off-topic to get into here.)
There are some folks who try to discount the film as a whole, and D.W. Griffith’s entire body of work, because of the racist material. It’s obviously far too prolific to ignore or excuse away as a mere product of its time, but if one focuses only on the racist material, one can’t understand and appreciate this film as the cinematic milestone and great film it is. Likewise, if someone totally brushes aside any objections to the racist material, that’s another kind of extreme one-sidedness. Pardon the expression, but the truth isn’t always so black and white.
I’ve mentioned the now-debunked Dunning School of Reconstruction in several posts, and now is as good of a time as any to finally go into some detail about it. This was a school of thought which falsified and misrepresented history to promote their biased POV. As I’ve said, I’m totally cool with sympathetically portraying the Southern POV of the Civil War and Reconstruction. However, the Dunning School isn’t just a Southern POV, it’s a completely false POV akin to denying the Shoah or Armenian Genocide.
It’s true that the former Confederate states (except Tennessee) were under martial law during Reconstruction. However, they were under martial law because they refused to ratify the 14th Amendment, which gave African-Americans equal rights and citizenship. Tennessee ratified this amendment, and thus avoided martial law. It probably would’ve been better had President Lincoln lived, since President Johnson’s treatment of the South was a lot harsher than had been planned.
The Dunning School claimed Southern whites were disenfranchised, and all the power was snatched by freed slaves, Scalawags (white Southerners who supported racial equality), Carpetbaggers (Northerners who moved to the South), and radical Republicans. However, there was never an African-American majority in government during this era, and these biracial governing bodies did wonderful things, such as creating charities, funding public schools, and offering much aide to support improved railroad transportation. Their first order of business couldn’t have been legalizing interracial marriage, since miscegenation was against the law in the South until 1967.
The Dunning School believed it was a colossal mistake to give African-Americans the vote, and approved of their disenfranchisement after Reconstruction came to an end. It also, naturally, provided a justification for Jim Crow and the Klan. There were obvious failures during Reconstruction, real corruption, and not enough of the reconciliatory spirit President Lincoln had hoped for.
However, the Dunning School took true instances of bad behaviour way out of context and acted like that happened all across the board. And that doesn’t even touch on the outright racism, like claiming African-American men were sexual predators lusting after white women and that all African-Americans were stupid, lazy, easily-spooked, and so ill-bred they’d go barefoot, drink whiskey, and eat fried chicken in the legislature.
Obviously, that so-called “historical re-enactment” of the scene in the 1871 South Carolina Legislature is a complete fabrication, employing a number of ugly racist tropes.
Walter Long was a great character actor specializing in villains, but it’s pretty obvious he’s in blackface. There was such a fear of African-American men raping white women, yet nothing said about the not-infrequent rapes of slave women by their white owners.
This lynching is depicted as justifiable revenge, and is one of the most chilling scenes in the film. Of course, the Klan is depicted as a righteous organization, knights in shining armor saving the South from these “unruly” elements. It’s very unsettling to watch African-Americans being forced to disarm by the Klan, and then scared away from voting the next Election Day by the presence of hooded goons and horses. And yet, it’s also amazing to watch the scene of the Klan “riding to the rescue,” since it’s such a gripping scene and so pioneering for 1915.
Bottom line: It’s impossible to overlook the racism, and the Dunning School has been soundly debunked as revisionist history. However, this is still a great film on other levels, and that’s why it’s not only so difficult to watch, but also so important to watch.