Notes from the Margins | Birth of a Nation: D.W. Griffiths and today’s Far-Right Imagination
New in Ceasefire, Notes from the Margins - Posted on Friday, December 14, 2012 21:54 - 4 Comments
By Matt Carr
I’ve just watched D.W. Griffiths’ The Birth of a Nation, a film that I’ve often heard about but not seen until now. It’s a disturbing and disconcerting experience, not just because of its rampantly white supremacist view of the American Civil War and the Reconstruction period, but because it really is an exceptional film on so many levels.
Griffiths’ direction is dazzling and innovative, and sometimes nothing short of astounding considering the technical limitations of the period. He combines expressive close ups to convey subtle emotional nuances with panoramic and brilliantly orchestrated battle scenes, chases, crowd scenes, and riots.
Through deft editing he is able to switch effortlessly between internal and external locations, between different timescales, places and characters, weaving multiple stories into a complex, exciting and dramatic narrative. Each shot his perfectly framed and crafted, and the large cast produces a succession of outstanding and committed performances, even from the minor characters.
The film is also striking for the way that it combines entertainment with an intricate and complex representation of American history. Its portrait of men and women swept along by the tide of war and history is Tolstoyan in scale.
But The Birth of a Nation is no War and Peace. Where Tolstoy’s novel enhances our sense of what it means to be human and finds a common humanity in all its characters, regardless of their class background or political persuasion, Griffiths’ film is dedicated to ends that are essentially repellent – the idealisation of slavery and the glorification of the Ku Klux Klan as the defender of Southern ‘civilisation’.
In Griffiths’ pro-Confederate view of the Civil War, the ‘birth’ of the United States as a unified nation is the result of the ‘martyrdom’ of the South during and after the war at the hands of corrupt Northern abolitionists and black supremacists in the South.
Early scenes portray the South as a pre-Civil War arcadia, in which genteel white folk exude grace and hospitality, while their slaves work contentedly and loyally in the house or cotton fields – with two hour breaks for lunch we are told. This romanticised and sentimental vision of the gallant and chivalrous Southern society populated by delicate paragons of femininity and equally exemplary men is matched by an utterly racist conception of black people that does not allow its black characters (many of whom are blacked-up white actors) any depth or breadth or any humanity at all – except as faithful slaves or servants
More often than not Griffiths depicts his black characters as crude racial caricatures, using visual imagery that would not have been out of place in the anti-Semitic film Jew Suss. For Griffiths, the end of slavery and the attempts to politically empower the former slaves in the South during Reconstruction destroy this natural order of things and brings about a black racial dictatorship – an outcome that he depicts as an atavistic reversion to terror, chaos and mob rule.
Like Jew Suss, The Birth of a Nation relies heavily on sexualised/racialised hysteria and disgust in its dehumanisation of the racial Other, and the black threat to the white South during Reconstruction is relentlessly steeped in an aura of sexual menace. In one scene in the North Carolina statehouse, black delegates leer menacingly at white women watching from the gallery as a politician promises to legalize inter-racial marriage.
In another the childlike younger daughter of the Cameron family – an epitome of the innocence and purity of Southern womanhood – jumps to her death to escape rape at the hands of a black Union soldier.
As the products of miscegenation, ‘mulattoes’ are particularly threatening sexual predators and degenerates. In one of the most dramatic scenes from the film, Lillian Gish is threatened with forced marriage by the satanic mulatto politician Silas Lynch, and scenes of Gish swooning in Lynch’s arms alternate with shots of black mobs breaking down doors and rioting in the streets – a fusion of sexual and political domination that is averted by the good Christian knights of the Ku Klux Klan, who come riding to town in force in full white regalia and knightly helmets.
Luckily alls well that ends well – Gish is saved, Lynch and the blacks are routed and too cowed by the Klan to raise their heads again. Order is restored, and former Union soldiers even fight together with Southerners, the recent war forgotten as they fight together in what the film calls the ‘common defence of their Aryan birthright.’ In the last scene even Jesus is superimposed over the screen to show his approval.
To call this propaganda would be to belittle Griffiths’ achievement and his intentions. He clearly believed the story he was telling, and his belief in the hierarchy of races – with whites at the top – was shared by many of his contemporaries, and not only in the Southern Unite States. It would be comforting to regard the film as a period piece, but his apocalyptic portrayal of the consequences of Reconstruction belongs to a nightmarish scenario that has often haunted the far-right imagination.
It’s a nightmare that can be seen in Jean Raspail’s racist novel The Camp of the Saints (1973) – a cult book in European radical right circles – in which first Europe and then the United States is destroyed by a mass arrival of millions of Third World ‘boat people’, all of whom are as primitive and childlike as any of Griffiths’ black characters.
In the genocidal American Nazi text The Turner Diaries (1978), white ‘resistance’ groups saveAmerica from a similar outcome by massacring the black and Asian population before unleashing a global racial war.
Today these fantasies of imminent collapse and extinction continue to drive the growth of far-right and nativist movements on both sides of the Atlantic. Earlier this year the Southern Poverty Law Center noted an ‘explosive’ expansion of the radical right and ‘Patriot’ movement in 2011, which it attributed to ‘superheated fears generated by economic dislocation, a proliferation of demonizing conspiracy theories, the changing racial makeup of America, and the prospect of four more years under a black president who many on the far right view as an enemy to their country.’
For some neo-Confederate and white nationalist militias, Obama is the incarnation of the same inverted natural order that once preoccupied Griffiths or others, the threat to white America stems from the ‘invasion’ of the South by Hispanic immigrants.
The SPLC also noted that many of these groups are influenced by a recent prediction by the Census Bureau that ‘ non-Hispanic whites will lose their majority, falling to under 50% of the population, by 2050’ as another reason for the expansion in such groups.
Similar anxieties abound in Europe, in far-right depictions of ‘mass immigration’ as a form of ‘ethnic cleansing’ or even ‘genocide’ of ‘indigenous’ Europeans; in the endlessly strident depictions of ‘ multiculturalism’ as a threat to European/national identity; in the conspiracy theory/fantasy of an Islamic plot to transform Europe into ‘Eurabia’; in the warnings my mainstream American conservatives of the imminent transformation of America into ‘MexAmerica’ or ‘Mexafornia.’
In societies that have become accustomed to global domination and supremacy, and which have often in the past rationalised such hegemony on the grounds of their racial or cultural superiority, globalisation, Third World immigration, shifting dynamics of global economic power and changing demographics represent a new variant on the apocalyptic vision of civilisational collapse that Griffiths once depicted with such manipulative brilliance.
Today the Internet is awash with anti-Islamic videos like the one with which Anders Breivik accompanied his Internet ‘manifesto’, in which sentimental evocations of the treasures of European civilisation are accompanied by terrifying images of the hate-filled Muslim barbarians in their midst that rely on very similar visual vocabulary to The Birth of a Nation.
With this civilisational disintegration is attributed to race, culture or religion – its more extremist proponents often hanker for a glorious and unifying act of violent ‘resistance’ of the type that the KKK once undertook in the Reconstruction South.
Where Griffiths once depicted the chivalrous Christian warriors of the Klan saving Southern civilisation and Southern women from the bestial black hordes, the mass murderer Breivik drapes his fantasies of virtuous retribution in PlayStation imagery of sword-wielding Christian knights and Knights Templar wreaking vengeance on the immigrants and multiculturalists who have corrupted European civilisation.
Breivik is no Griffiths – in cinematic terms – but his politics are not that distinct. And perhaps the most disturbing aspect of The Birth of a Nation lies in the fact that, nearly a century later, the phobias and assumptions that enabled its director to celebrate the Ku Klux Klan’s defence of America’s ‘Aryan birthright’ are still present in so many societies, even if they have taken a different form.