Contrasting Colours in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation

Birth of a Nation is a film from 1915 which is loosely based on Thomas Dixon’s racist works entitled The Clansmen and The Leopard’s Spots. Both of these novels are racially discriminatory in nature and they propose that the African-American should be repressed, segregated and expelled from America (Pitcher, 51). However, filmmaker D. W. Griffith does not immerse the viewer immediately into these racist tones of the film until the second half of Birth of a Nation. Here, the black Union soldiers represent the encroachment of African-Americans into the South, while the Ku Klux Klan represents the beset white populace. Griffith sets up the violent action in Birth of a Nation in such a way as to propose that the Ku Klux Klan and its confederates are defending themselves from African-American aggression. This dance of aggression and counter-aggression is most prominently seen in the final third of the film, at approximately 2:00:17 (IndieFlix). The first violent action is initiated by Silas Lynch, the villain of the film, Gus, an African-American Union soldier, and other fighting, coloured men. This paper will argue that Griffith uses certain film elements including lighting, mise-en-scène match on action and cross cutting to most clearly show the racist themes in the film, in a chaotic post-war South.

The first thing viewers might notice in this scene is the lighting. The lighting in this shot is light and sunny when focused on the Ku Klux Klan, but slightly darkish when the camera is filming the Union soldiers. Griffith had an exceptional understanding of filmmaking techniques and this contrast in lighting places the Union soldiers, not so subtly, on the side of darkness and evil, while the Ku Klux Klan remains in the light and in goodness. It can be argued that the Ku Klux Klan in their white hoods and light backgrounds almost appear as vengeful angels, fighting for white dominance. The lighting is one of many compelling film elements used to contrast characters and for showing Griffith’s racist themes.

Other film elements further villainize the African-American soldiers, including mise-en-scène, or the use of settings. The three anonymous Ku Klux Klan members are out in the open in a forested area, while the Union soldiers lie in wait behind a large cropping of brush. Griffith sets up the African-American soldiers, led by Silas, to appear cowardly, as they hide behind set pieces including shrubbery. Their hidden position and lack of intent to fight openly would signal that these characters are cowardly villains, ready to exploit any military advantage. This placement of the Union black soldiers in this position would further distance the audience from empathizing with the African-Americans. Thus, the racial themes are again emphasized with Griffith’s use of the characters’ physical positions in relation to the action.

Griffith also uses match on action to further emphasize his racist motivations, by highlighting the characters’ actions, while also focusing on the characters’ emotional reaction to this short scene. Silas, the central villain, can be seen driving the Union soldiers into violent action with an angry expression. He appears spiteful of the Ku Klux Klan and it is he who initiates the attack on the Ku Klux Klan. The reactions of the riders are hidden behind masks, but Lynch can clearly be seen as being antagonistic towards the white riders. This projection of hate and anger of the black characters is most likely felt as an illusionary threat by Griffith and a racist South. There seems to be a juxtaposition of emotion where blacks carry the anger felt by Griffith towards African-Americans. In other words, this is a racial projection or fantasy. Griffith’s racist themes are emphasized by match on action to show how the violence and hate filled emotion is initiated by the black characters, while the white characters can only react.

This series of shots is actually a composition of seven cuts, signifying a cross-cutting section of film. The cross-cutting here once again emphasizes the racist themes by dramatizing the previous film elements of lighting, costumes, and settings. The quick cross-cutting is used to further contrast the two separate groups, in an attempt to racially divide these characters. Griffith uses these seven cuts between a set of two titles to not only show the action from the two different sides, but to further emphasize the differences in the two groups through the use of emotional states, initiation of action, differences in lighting and costumes.

All of these film elements are emphasizing the racist themes of Griffith’s film, which are seen in previously viewed or upcoming scenes. There are many earlier scenes that emphasize this theme of racism, as seen by the ballot stuffing of blacks in a Southern election. Blacks and their white enablers are obviously meant to be seen as dishonest and exploitative. As well, in this scene, the black characters are shown with malevolent emotional reactions. Also, black elected officials are seen drinking while in session, in an obvious satirization of their competency. Their costumes are slovenly to emphasize their lack of professionalism. Later in the film, themes of racism are seen when Gus chases after Flora. The implication is that Gus caused her death, due to unrestrainable sexual desires. And it is Gus who again initiates aggression against a white character. Racism is the overarching theme that unifies the film in the scene analyzed here and in other scenes, as Griffith is proposing a unified and hostile white South positioned against the black Unionist North through film elements, or a unified white North and South against the black minority.

Griffith’s racist film Birth of a Nation has been seen by over 200 million viewers. The film remains controversial for so blatantly espressing racist themes that were prevalent not only in the South but across America, at the time. Griffith uses certain film elements to emphasize the overarching theme of racism including: lighting, costumes, mise-en-scène, match on action and cross cutting. These filmmaking techniques in the scene analyzed here portray the African-American Unionist soldiers as instigators of violence, thereby villainizing these characters and setting the audiences against black characters in the film and possibly even outside the cinemasphere, into reality. However, those in the Ku Klux Klan are shown to be on the side of goodness and the white characters also are seen using counter-aggression rather than outright aggression, in response to African-American encroachment. In a way, Griffith is setting up the white characters as victims of the Unionist soldiers to justify his racist themes. Finally, Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is important for showing how filmmaking techniques can influence the audience’s judgement or reaction to characters in film. The only question that remains relates to how these perceptions of African-American characters in the cinematic world influence life away from racial propaganda, in the real world.

Works Consulted

Griffith, D W., dir. Birth of a Nation. Epoch Distributing Company, 1915. Web. 22 Sept. 2011.

Pitcher, Conrad. “D. W. Griffith’s Controversial Film, “The Birth of a Nation”.” OAH Magazine of History 13.3 (1999): 50-55. Web. 22 Sept. 2011.

Wallace, Michelle F. “The Good Lynching and “The Birth of a Nation”: Discourses and Aesthetics of Jim Crow.” Cinema Journal 43.1 (2003): 85-104. Web. 22 Sept. 2011.

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