Mis) representations of African-Americans in film:
From the Birth of a Nation onward
Recently, the Academy of Motion Pictures awarded 12 Years a Slave the title of Best Picture of the year. However, it is important to remember that the development of American cinema, racism, and the perpetuation of African-American stereotypes in film has a long and ignoble history. In the essay "The Good Lynching and Birth of a Nation: Discourses and aesthetics of Jim Crow," historian Michele Faith Wallace examines how one of the great silent film epics directed by cinematic master D.W. Griffith consciously and subconsciously validated hegemonic racial ideologies. Wallace argues that when cinema was in its infancy, although African-Americans were portrayed on screen less frequently than whites, they were not addressed in the same derogatory manner as characterized the Griffith epic and Griffith's masterpiece set the tone for decades afterward. "The film's continued notoriety challenges all our most beloved notions of the intrinsically moral character of aesthetic masterpieces" (Wallace 86).
Griffith's epic The Birth of a Nation depicts the antebellum South in a positive way and was based upon the racist novels of clansman Thomas Dixon (Wallace 86-87). The film also draws heavily from melodrama such as one scene in which a young woman decides to throw herself to her death over a cliff rather than be raped by a black man. Yet while the film claims to represent antebellum culture and the evils of Reconstruction, it is also, Wallace argues, is notably silent about blacks -- even the rampaging Gus is obviously a white man in blackface. The narrative is one of a 'fall from Eden' of the pre-Civil War idyll to the hell of Reconstruction. The members of the Klu Klux Klan emerge as the film's heroes and the creation of the Klan is inspired by the sight of children playing. Gus is lynched in a way that is depicted as noble, not evil.
The film is decidedly anti-war (one reason why it was so popular when it was released in 1915): the slaves before the film are shown as happy with their lot and leading lives of relatively pleasant labor. Rather than showing the slaves being liberated from slavery in a positive light, the film instead focuses on the ways in which families are torn apart by the divisiveness of the war. The war kills love and thus war is bad, suggests the film, implying that the personal implications for the families are all that matter, not the enslavement of blacks.
Since Birth of a Nation, of course, there have been many films which have depicted the African-American experience in a more positive way. Yet even relatively recent films such as Mississippi Burning, To Kill a Mockingbird, and A Time to Kill tend to show black people on the periphery of existence, as symbolic rather than real figures. Even when slavery or racism is shown in a negative way, the central questions of these films are always 'what should good white people do' rather than focusing on the negative effects of racism on black people.
A Birth of a Nation was very careful not to challenge the dominant ideology of what was 'good' and 'bad' about the Civil War too much, however. For example, the portrayal of Abraham Lincoln is extremely positive, despite the fact he was reviled by white southerners at the time. A negative portrayal of the 16th president would have been too unpopular. Instead, Lincoln is portrayed as a 'good' northerner, commuting the death sentence of a white southern soldier and when he is assassinated, the 'good' white southerners are shown lamenting the death of their "best friend." Because of Lincoln's death, Griffith suggests, radical Reconstruction was forced upon the South, resulting in the 'evils' of African-Americans assuming political power (Wallace 93). African-Americans, in contrast to their submissive behavior under the 'good' regime of slavery are shown unable to understand the voting process and demand marriage to white women. Interestingly, the most evil character in the film -- that of Gus, the black rapist fixated on white women -- is portrayed by a white actor in obvious blackface, thus once again 'erasing' the real existence of real blacks as meaningful protagonists and reducing them to caricatures. In Griffith's view, showing an actual black actor engaging in such behavior would have been too inflammatory and actual African-Americans are largely relegated to the status of extras in the film.
Griffith's film because of its power and artistry became the accepted narrative of Reconstruction. It made public and sanitized the brutal spectacle of lynchings in the south. Many lynchings were memorialized with photographs of the perpetrators, with the obvious knowledge that given the injustices of the southern legal system they were unlikely to ever be brought to justice. Birth of a Nation was another example of this romanticizing and publicizing this vigilantism. It also continued the dominant narrative espoused by white southerners that freed slaves were 'unprepared' for freedom and the right to vote, this tacitly justifying the suppression of black rights for decades afterward until the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Although there were some important 'correctives' to this vision, such as the writings of W.E.B Dubois, because the voices of white southerners were so powerful in cinema and literature like in Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, the truth had less currency than the fictional vision (Wallace 95).
However, even films which ostensibly were supposed to advocate for African-Americans and racial parity were largely dependent upon white stereotypes of Africanness. Uncle Tom's Cabin was supposed to be a manifesto against slavery. However, the great heroes of the book are all mulattos with very pale skin, the implication being that as they are 'almost white' they deserve justice (Wallace 98). "Griffith, Dixon, Stowe, and indeed the rank and file of white abolitionists were not substantially in disagreement of about the cultural inferiority of the full-blooded or nearly full-blooded African black," although they may have proposed radically different solutions to this supposed 'racial problem' (Wallace 98). Stowe's view was that blacks who looked and acted like whites should be treated like whites while those of evident African ancestry should be treated benignly like children; Griffith viewed African-American liberation as a threat to American democracy (Wallace 98). Both these 'northern' and 'southern' views validated racism and films of Uncle Tom's Cabin and Birth of a Nation gave such views potent, dramatic appeal.
Film and drama thus were colonized by the white perspective very early on in the history of the medium, which is one reason why African-American artists of the 20th century had to resort to other mediums in which to voice their points-of-view, such as the blues. "The intimate violence of blues culture could be rage-filled, a desperate striking out at a black victim when what one really wanted to strike back at was at a white world that had defined one as nameless and worthless" (Gussow 5). Also, unlike film, which is a collective medium requiring a great deal of money to fund projects (particularly those as ambitious as Birth of a Nation), music is a more spontaneous and individualistic movement, allowing songwriters and singers to more directly question the dominant, false discourse regarding Reconstruction.
The place of Birth of a Nation in the history of cinema remains ambiguous today. On one hand, it was the pioneer of certain radical components of cinematography that today we take for granted; on the other hand it is credited with giving rise to the rebirth of the Klu Klux Klan which caused so much suffering to so many African-Americans. According to film critic Roger Ebert:
To understand The Birth of a Nation we must first understand the difference between what we bring to the film, and what the film…