Plantation Stereotypes in The Birth of a Nation

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 11.52.37 AMScreen Shot 2015-09-12 at 11.52.57 AMIn a section of my current book project on the D. W. Griffith film, The Birth of a Nation, I will be interrogating the notion of the plantation trope, if you will, as it appears in the first scenes of the film. Many early-twentieth century musings on this subject are clear reflections of a romanticized “Old South” plantation life that conjured up images of the benevolent white patriarch and the happy but simple-minded darky.

Griffith enlisted the film medium to  enshrine this mythos as visual…or if you like, living history. And he is in near perfect step with a prevailing white sentiment concerning the antebellum South that took root with the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War and spread to a national audience by the end of the nineteenth century. While there are a number of notable exceptions – groups and individuals who rejected the film’s interpretive bent, I question how such a sectional narrative took hold and captured the imaginations of (and “historically” educated) a national audience.

In an effort to move beyond insular academic circles and engage the general public on the idea of visual representations of history, I ask: what cultural, ideological, and intellectual tendencies informed the “making” of The Birth of a Nation?

Of course, such a question can get tricky – so I welcome all comments and suggestions in the comment section below. This week, I will be working on so-called scientific studies that supported the racist sensibilities running throughout the film.

With compliments,

Keith

6 thoughts on “Plantation Stereotypes in The Birth of a Nation”

  1. Well, found the film on Netflix and have started it. I’ve never taken the time to watch it, so this will be interesting. But at 3+ hours, it won’t be done in one sitting .

  2. I don’t know about all those questions you posed above, but I will say that those who came before Griffith and especially those who came after were fond of the plantation trope, as it were. I think it is interesting that you post what were the first scenes of BofN. A cotton field, or scenes of cotton, or a slave cabin in a cotton field–were frequently used in films to establish that the setting was”a plantation in the Old South.” And often, it happened in the first scenes just as in BofN. It’s in Al Jolson’s “A Plantation Act,” (1926), King Vidor’s Hallelujah (1929), I think it’s also in the Shirley Temple film The Littlest Rebel (1935), in the first 3 minutes of GWTW (1939), and I’m sure others I can’t think of right now.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Karen. Of course, I think Griffith had both a utilitarian and metaphorical use for the plantation scenes. He was acting as a historian and most certainly wanted to show a literal representation of plantation life (as he understood it). At the same time, he let these scenes speak for and symbolize an era where things were clearly understood in terms of radicalized hierarchy…what was in a state of crisis in later scenes on the film. I am going to have to have a closer look at the other films you mention – they will definitely find a place when I discuss the legacy of the film.

  3. Keith,

    Quick thought on same types of images, packaged as accurate reflections of past or present, in contemporary visual mass-media, on postcards such as the series for the Old KY Home diorama: http://fl-genweb.org/memories/hamilton/index.html

    …and on Keystone, Kilburn, or U&U stereoviews: http://www.stereoviews.com/black2.html

    (And, I’m guessing, at least some of the above in proto-cinematic sequences or narratives.)

    Also, maybe too early (1898-1906) or local for you, but the Bolding vs. Haaskarl debate in Chambersburg, halfway down here, invoked science along with religion: http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/VoS/memory/franklinmemory_p3a.html

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