The late 19th century, was a period that laid vast technological progression in the film industry toward the start of the twentieth century. During the time that new technology brought in the conception of motion pictures and on screen projections, the imageries of African Americans on big screen were derogatory characters that portrayed them as ignorant, lazy. African Americans were concerned about race and racism in the motion picture industry from its inception.
These degrading stereotypical portrayals of African Americans in film were a result of widely popular, idealized beliefs in the white society about African Americans and African American lifestyles as represented in historical and modern-day literature and personal accounts about the plantation and the “happy, faithful slaves. ” “Many of these early films had suggestive and derogatory titles such as The Wooing and Wedding of a Coon (1905) and A Nigger in a Woodpile (1904). (SOURCE) However, it can be alluded that no motion picture film had the same political or social impact as a single, racist, entertainment film than D. W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation. ” The Birth of a Nation was created during the silent film era, but its ground breaking editing and cinematic techniques made it an instant film classic. The film “pioneered such camera techniques as the use of panoramic long shots, the iris effects, still-shots, night photography, panning camera shots, and a carefully staged battle sequence with hundreds of extras made to look like thousands.
It also contained many new artistic techniques, such as color tinting for dramatic purposes, building up the plot to an exciting climax, dramatizing history alongside fiction, and featuring its own musical score written for an orchestra. ” (Wikipedia. org) Although the film techniques were innovative for its time, the film’s adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s racist novel The Clansman (1905) presented Griffith with factual background for his understandings on African Americans and confirmed beliefs on racism. Thomas Cripps, a historian typified the film as “at once a major stride for cinema, and a sacrifice of black humanity to the cause of racism. (SOURCE) The film influenced racial attitudes and behavior in American society. Although DW Griffith claimed that the film portrayed accurate accounts of blacks during that time, ironically he never used one African American character to portray an accurate role in his film. The main black roles were played by white actors in “blackface” and the minor, yet stereotypical parts of slaves in the cotton field or raiding the white mans house were played by real African Americans. African Americans, were looked upon as low-grade people who needed the help of the “civilized” white man.
The film portrayed blacks, especially in the South as brutal and inhumane and whites from the South as those who endured continual political and sexual mortifications at the hands of white northerners and black southerners before literally being saved by the chivalrous, hooded riders of the Ku Klux Klan. The film harped upon the idea of glamorizing the Ku Klux Klan as the savior of whites in the South from brutish blacks who, if left unrestrained, would ultimately destroy white American civilization through the inter-racial relations.
This had a significant impact in many white communities as many white Americans in general, considered these powerful anti-black images accurate indicators of the black race and culture. The general consensus with white communities was chiefly, that black men had a lustful desire for white women and that it was the rightful responsibility of the Klan to guard white women. Disregarded was the issue that during this time the sexuality of the black man and white female were the catalyst behind the horrific and bestial practice of lynching.
Controversially for white men, inter-racial sex was a mark of “manhood”; while for black men, the same act resulted in a death. It can be indicated that Birth of Nation played a significant role in the return of the Ku Klux Klan post the film’s release in 1915. According to “William J. Simmons, a flamboyant white supremacist, chose the opening of the film in Atlanta, Georgia, to announce the rebirth of the new Klan. ” The films release took place as many blacks were migrating up North.
The Klan saw this opportunity as the gateway to easily transfer the anti-black message in the film to white Catholics and Jews and to the droves of eastern and southern European immigrants who were migrating to America. The film helped to foster this sort of racist mob approach, and resonated America’s violent racial history. However, in the eyes of African American the negative impact of the film was becoming universal. Threats of rioting were associated with its release, but some of the most destructive race riots in the nation’s history occurred in Northern cities only a few years later, in 1919.
The NAACP organized one of its first biracial protests as a result of film. The organization published a pamphlet titled Fighting a Vicious Film: Protest against The Birth of a Nation, and referred to the film as “filth. ”The NAACP acted immediately to prohibit the film from being shown in many cities around the US. Their protests resulted in the banning of the film in Chicago, Denver, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis and the editing out of some of the most offensive sequences, specifically, the attempted sexual assault scene and also scenes recommending that all blacks be shipped to Africa, when the film premiered in Boston.
The NAACP’s response raised the issue of censorship, and this alienated the support of some progressives and liberals. Ironically, the more the NAACP protested, the more publicity the film received and the more popular it became. “In New York City, moviegoers bought more than three million tickets over several months to see the film. In Atlanta, thousands of Klansmen paraded through the streets to celebrate the opening of the film in 1915. By 1920, Birth had grossed more than $60 million. It was the first film treated as a major cultural event, with theaters charging an unprecedented two dollars per ticket. Without question The Birth of a Nation is one of the most racially controversial, yet one of the most significant films in motion picture history. It literally changed the way films were made. For good or bad, feature films with a message attempted to persuade the audience to accept a specific point of view, and Birth was the first film in this genre to have such a pervasive impact on American society. Unfortunately, it created black phenotypes and genotypes in film consisting of coons, toms, Mulattoes, mammies, and bucks that have persisted and that refuse to die easily.
Even in the early twenty-first century, Birth generates heated discussion, much of it involving the balance between artistic creative freedom and social responsibility. The film gave the movies its technical vocabulary, but it also gave comfort to the racism that continues to besmirch America’s social life. Film is an influential medium, and any study of racism or race should consider the influence of negative motion picture images of blacks in society, because images transfer ideas, and in the social structure of race, ideas are of utmost significance.