The Birth of a Nation as American Myth

By Richard C. Salter


1. As Clyde Taylor (1996, 16) points out, "Mainstream cinema scholars and aestheticians ... have kept the race issue at arm's length from their exploration of the film's technique, refusing to synthesize these discussions."  He argues that by engaging the film solely at the level of technique and aesthetics, and by refusing to see the connection of aesthetics and racism, cinema studies adopts a passive racism that leads it to ignore the meaning of Griffith's film as American epic and the role of racism in the American epic.  Rogin (1985) has also commented on this tendency.  Carter (1971) is an earlier example of a scholar who does deal with this problem.  Some reviewers, such as Hackett (in Silva 1971), made the connection of aesthetics and race early on.

2. On the other hand, scholars have long viewed film as a reflection of and producer of social values.  Scott (1994), for example, describes how film works on a mythic level to resolve contradictory social values.  Martin and Ostwalt (1995) devote a section of their book to explorations of film and ideology.  Greene (1998) offers an insightful glimpse of how the producers of the Planet of the Apes series played with national ideological issues in a more dialogical fashion.  Miles (1996) shows how films create a space for individuals and groups to explore ideological and other cultural issues.  Of course there are many studies of how particular films reflect patriotism.  Auster (2002), for example, shows how Saving Private Ryan gained popularity by tapping into ideals of "patriotic transcendence."  Though civil religion might be considered a form of ideology (or hegemony), the literature on religion and film has not generally used the term civil religion to systematically analyze how film sanctifies aspects of American identity.  Carter's (1971) article on Birth as cultural history or, as he also phrases it, "epic manqué," does not use the phrase "civil religion" but does address the relationship of the film to imagined forms of American identity.

3. If the real story of the film is clearly indicated in the title, part of Griffith's directorial genius was to tell that story through the lives of sympathetic characters.  As Griffith's biographer, Robert Henderson (1972, 158) has pointed out, "Griffith also demonstrated than an audience became most involved with the "truth" of a motion picture when they were involved with the lives of "real" people.  The secret of The Birth of a Nation, perhaps, is that the audience cared about the Camerons."

4. Griffith edited Birth continuously, sometimes in response of the requests of censors.  He also revised it for screening in later years.  Thus, there are many different cuts of the film.  Unless I note otherwise, I rely on the longer version now considered "official."

5. Discussions of civil religion are legion.  A recent summary of literature and argument for the continued importance of the concept can be found in Michael Angrosino (2002).  Other important articles can be found in Richey and Jones (1974), Bellah (1975), and Bellah and Hammond (1980).

6. For Eliade (1963, 5) "Myth narrates a sacred history; it relates an event that took place in primordial time, the fabled time of the 'beginnings.'  In other words, myth tells how, through the deeds of Supernatural Beings, a reality came into existence, be it the whole of reality, the Cosmos, or only a fragment of reality - an island, a species of plant, a particular kind of human behavior and institution." Or, we might add, a nation.

7. Wilson (1990), for example, details the transformation of the Southern civil religion into a universal myth starting shortly after the time of Griffith's film.  Carter (1971) also analyzes Birth as an extension of the "Plantation Illusion" or "Southern Illusion" to the nation as a whole.

8. In fact, though Steiger's (1992) study of Birth shows that its reception changed dramatically over time as audience and socio-historical contexts changed, there is also much evidence from early reviews that the film was wildly applauded and cheered in its initial receptions.  See, for examples, the reviews in Silva (1971).  It is also clear from some of those reviews that the film was understood by many viewers to be history.

9. Fred Silva (1971, 8) notes that in Barnet Bravermann's 1941 unpublished interview with Griffith, Griffith ultimately agreed that the film should not be publicly exhibited because it was not clear enough and was embarrassing to Blacks.

10. Roy Aitken (1965, 10) notes that Griffith employed four historians to check background facts for the film.  Dixon (in Silva, 94) defended the historical accuracy of the book on which Birth was based, noting in particular that it had been approved by Secretary of State and historian John Hay.  Gish (1969, 145) mentions an erroneous account of a half-dozen historians working on the film and thousands of extras employed to make the film as realistic as possible (cf. Cripps 1963, 354).  Henderson (1972, 150) verifies that Griffith was "almost obsessed" with research, though only of the sort that bolstered his own ideas.  Gish (1969, 136-138) describes how Griffith constantly consulted, among other historical texts, Mathew Brady's Civil War Photographs: Confederate and Union Veterans - Eyewitnesses on Location so he could restage "many moments of history with complete fidelity to them."  He restaged parts of Our American Cousin, the play being performed at Ford's Theater when Lincoln was assassinated, so that the scene would correspond as closely as possible to what actually occurred.  He consulted veterans about troop movements, and he obtained authentic Civil War artillery for close shots of battles.  He had authentic uniforms made to specification for the soldiers and consulted Brady's photographs for hairstyles of the period.

11. Griffith's attention to historical detail may also unintentionally reveal the film's mythic dimension.  For example, Taylor (1996) argues that a discrepancy in Griffith's aesthetic of historical representation underscores the film's larger purpose.  Despite striving for historical accuracy in everything else, most blacks in the film were played by whites in blackface.  As a result, the aesthetic of the story carries Griffith's politics: the inauthentic element in the picture is the same as the inauthentic element of the nation -- blacks.

12. Others intimately involved with the film were less opaque about their political aspirations for the film.  Cripps (1963, 349) tells how Dixon revealed his purpose to President Wilson's secretary, Joseph Tumulty:  "I didn't dare allow the President to know the real big purpose back of my film - which was to revolutionize Northern sentiments by a presentation of history that would transform every man in the audience into a good Democrat!"  It is important to remember that at this stage in American history Republican and Democrat signified regional affiliations as much as anything else.  Thus Dixon's goal was to bolster the power of the South.

13. Though black directors like William Foster had made movies prior to Birth, it is widely agreed that Birth spurred a boom in black cinema in the late teens and early twenties.  Films like The Birth of a Race (1916) and The Realization of a Negro's Ambition (1916) avoided black stereotypes prevalent at the time.  But these films were not without their own problems.  For example, disagreements over what The Birth of a Race (1916) should portray ultimately fractured the group that had coalesced to produce it, scared away Hollywood money, and led to the project being taken over by those not interested in telling a black story.  Finally, Cripps (1996, 45) tells us, war fever and profit seeking "transformed the focus from a story of black 'progress' into a neutrally shaded universal 'progress.'"  Realization (1916) has been criticized as merely a black Horatio Alger story that also does not show the real situation of most black Americans.  (See Cripps 1997.

14. In addition to releasing films with content that challenged Birth, Micheaux also responds to the conventions of filmmaking and narrative that Griffith made normative.  Thus Micheaux's directing challenges Griffith's techniques of portraying truth and reality.  Ciraulo (1998, 76) argues that Micheaux "challenges dominant accounts of history and race relations by using an unusual filmic approach to single shots and to larger narrative construction."  For example, his use of tableaux shots can be seen as a reference to an earlier documentary style that simultaneously makes a claim to documentary veracity and places African Americans at the center of the story.  As Ciraulo (1998, 79) states, "The 'reality' Micheaux documents is daily black life and race relations in the United States."  His narrative structure also implicitly challenges Birth.  Micheaux uses extensive flashback sequences, not to push forward the plot, but to introduce the viewers to ever-deeper insights into who the characters are emotionally and how they became that way.  In contrast to Griffith, who conveys the present tense as one moment in the linear path of progress, Micheaux uses flashbacks to show the present as a moment pregnant with the past.  "Over and over again in Within Our Gates we see that memory bursts into the present tense of the narrative with material force."  (Ciraulo, 1998, 88)

15. Within also ends with a wedding scene, so it too falls into the convention of representing America through images of a nuclear family.

JR & F
Home Page
JR & F
Vol.8 No.2

Copyrighted by Journal of Religion and Film 2003
Site Maintained by
Department of Philosophy and Religion
University of Nebraska at Omaha

Contact Webmaster about site