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butters, African-Amer. Cinema and Birth of a Nation

butters, African-Amer. Cinema and Birth of a Nation - 62...

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Unformatted text preview: 62 BLACK MANHOOD ON THE SILENT SCREEN the past. Such faithful African—American compatriots seemed not to exist in the modern era. Between 1896 and 1915, the majority of American films depicting African-American masculinity confined black men to a narrow frame of ref- erence. They were not part of an “unformed image” but reflected a tradi‘ tion of literature, vaudeville, and popular culture that relegated them to a position of inferiority, degradation, or indolence.“ In most instances, African-American men were not even worthy enough to play themselves on the screen; it was necessary for white men to depict them. Anyone watching a large body of early silent films would assume that all black men ate water— melon and stole chickens and in their spare time played craps and danced; black babies were worthless, black women were wenches, and the black fam— ily was nonexistent. According to early silent film, the white master’s family was the only family that African Americans had. Black men were shot at, hung, eaten by alligators, bucked by donkeys, and beaten. Black men were always afraid (except when saving white families) and black romance was simply a joke. There were definite ruptures in early film (taken from real life) that threatened this unformed image but these ruptures were either legis- lated away, such as lack Johnson’s triumph over white boxers, or ignored, as with African Americans participating in the military. The majority of silent films made between 1896 and 1915 were produced by northern-based urban companies. These motion picture studios not only aptly illustrated northern racism toward African Americans but much of the racial ideology of Conservative and Radical southerners. David Wark Griffith’s infamous The Birth of a Nation crystallized all of the worst stereotypes of African-American masculinity into a vicious diatribe of hatred illustrating the excesses of northern and southern racism. The Afi'ican- American community had been aware of the powerfully negative cinematic imagery of themselves displayed on the screen and had protested against it sporadically. The Birth of a Nation would unite the African-American com- munity against the film. The protest against the film included a call for cen‘ sorship. Some African Americans would respond by creating their own films—the true renaissance of African-American filmmaking in this nation. 4 AFRICAN-AMERICAN CINEMA AND THE BIRTH OFA NATION Chicken-stealing, irresponsible, crap-shooting, lazy, watermelon-eating, tor- tured, dancing servants—this was the dominant imagery that African-Amer- ican men saw of themselves on the screen when they were even allowed in movie theaters. This was the imagery that African-American men critically, economically, and artistically reacted to by beginning their own motion pic- ture production in the 19103.'Black filmmaking was a reaction against this imagery but it was also an attempt by African-American men to reclaim their manhood: What black men saw on the screen did not reflect reality; it was an attack on African-American culture. Black men reacted to this imagery by reshaping images of themselves on the screen that reflected either reality or a more positive, even idealistic, view of black manhood. Kevin Gaines has ar- gued, “Mass—media technologies and industries provided new, more power- ful ways of telling the same old stories of black deviance and pathology. . . . It should be noted, however, that at the same time mass-culture industries provided opportunities for black cultural production, the construction, or reconstruction of black consciousness, and fiirther struggle and contestation over representations of race.”1 This desire and need to counter the negative cinematic imagery of African Americans became more critical following the release of The Birth 0ft; Nu- tion. The film was a tremendous catalyst to black filmmaking, demonstrating the political and societal need for more realistic cinematic representations of black people. The Birth of a Nation demonstrated to American society, African Americans in particular, the powerful influence of the new medium. The Birth of a Nation was a milestone in the history of the cinema. The film became a cause célebre, a topic on the tongues of politicians, moviegoers, and social workers. The film illustrated the pervasive power that motion pictures could have on the American social conscience. The film was based on two 63 64 BLACK MANHOOD ON THE SILENT SCREEN of Thomas W. Dixon’s novels—The Leopard ’5 Spot: (1901) and The Clan:- mun (1903). Born in the midst of the Civil War, Dixon was eight years old when he accompanied his uncle to the state legislature in South Carolina, where he saw “ninety-four Negroes, seven native scalawags [white South Carolina Republicans] and twenty—three white men [presumably carpetbag- gers from the North].”2 This familial distortion ofhistory was to have a pro- found impression on young Dixon. He was raised in an environment where African Americans were viewed as inherently inferior and not to be trusted. After working as an actor, clergyman, essayist, and lecturer, Dixon found his life work after hearing the Reverend John D. Fulton speak in Boston on “The Southern Problem” (by which Fulton meant the inability of the South to run its own government). ' Outraged at Fulton’s derogatory remarks against the South, he interrupted the minister halfway through the lecture to denounce his remarks as “false and biased.”3 Dixon’s main purpose in life became the desire to “set the record straight” regarding Reconstruction.4 He became one of the best known and most vocal southern Radicals in the early twentieth century. Dixon consequently turned to fiction to spread his message. His first novel, The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’: Burden, was an attempt to answer Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.5 Whereas Stowe’s novel attempted to show the nation the cruelties of slavery, Dixon attempted to demonstrate to the country the horrible an— guish that southern white men suffered during the Reconstruction period. Stowe used her villain Simon Legree to illustrate the exploitation of blacks in a physical sense. Dixon took a character from Stowe’s novel, a freed black slave, and transformed him into a graduate of Harvard who overreaches his societal boundaries when he asks to marry the daughter ofa white defender of the Negro cause. Dixon’s novel was an instantaneous success, selling over one hundred thousand copies in its first three months of publication.6 The Leopard’: Spots established Dixon as an “expert” on southern life and Reconstruction. He believed there was an evolutionary gap between the black and white races and that racial peace could occur only with complete separation of the races. Dixon’s nightmare was miscegenation, which he be- lieved would lead to the mongrelization of the white race. Dixon believed that African colonization was the only hope; all freed slaves must be re— turned to their ancestral homeland. Dixon also despised the treatment that the North gave the South during Reconstruction.7 The success of The Leopard’: Spots led to a constant demand for Dixon as a lecturer and writer. Tall and commanding, he preached his diatribe on AFRICAN-AMERICAN CINEMA AND THE BIRTH OF A NATION 65 race, Reconstruction, and the southern way of life across the nation. Out- side the South, Dixon had to tone down his aversion toward northerners and immigrants, stressing instead his fear of freed, politicized black men. Dixon told audiences, “My object is to teach the north, the young north, what it has never known—the awful suffering of the white man during the dreadful reconstruction period. I believe that almighty God has anointed the white men of the South by their suffering . . . to demonstrate to the world that the white man must and shall be supreme.”8 ’ Within a few years Dixon completed his second and most famous novel, The Clanmmn: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. The Clunsman was a reworking and expansion of The Leopard’s Spots, with a heavier stress on the heroics of the Ku Klux Klan and a vicious attack on Dixon’s béte noir, Thaddeus Stevens, a leader of the Radical Republicans. In this book, Stevens is portrayed as a despicable character who lives with a mulatto mistress, con- trary to most historical accounts. In the novel, he cast the Ku Klux Klan in a heroic role because they supposedly returned AfricanAAmerican men to their natural place of inferiority. The Clansman sold over one million copies, and its great success caused Dixon to consider its possibilities as a drama.9 In 1905, Dixon converted The Clunrman into a play that toured widely in the Midwest and the South.10 David Wark Griffith was also a product of the South. Like Dixon, he spent his childhood listening to tales of heroic sacrifices by Confederate sol- diers and misdeeds and misconduct by scalawags, carpetbaggers, and, most of all, blacks. Griffith’s view of the South was idealized, one based on “fam- ily mythology and a romantic literary and historical tradition.”ll Griffith’s father actually served in a limited capacity in the war and grossly overdra- matized his own contributions to the war effort (perhaps to counter his al- most complete lack of financial support for his family). What was established in Griffith’s mind was a white patriarchal ideal, a world in which white men protected white women and where African Americans stayed in their inferior place. By 1914 Griffith was one of America’s premier film directors. During his tenure at Biograph he directed hundreds of films, most of them traditional melodramas. The Civil War served as a backdrop for many of these films. In virtually all of the war films, a white male hero saves his family, girl, or nation in a time of crisis. Griffith and Dixon arranged to collaborate on filming The Clummem in 1914. Dixon recognized the potential of working in the new medium of motion pictures. He said: “The Whole problem of swift universal education of public opinion is thus solved by this invention. Civilization will ..-n_un ‘0' nAm—t H. new...” v *"F‘ZW» é[email protected]%W-Mt~imaa:§nuu a . e 66 BLACK MANHOOD ON THE SILENT SCREEN be saved if we can stir and teach the slumbering millions behind the politi- cian. By this device we can reach them. We can make them see things hap— pen before their eyes until they cry in anguish. We can teach them the true living history of the race. Its scenes will be vivid realities, not cold works on printed pages, but scenes wet with tears and winged with hope.”12 The actual scenario of the film, based on Dixon’s stage versions of The Clunsman and The Leopard ’5 Spots, was written by Griffith and Frank Woods. The traditional interpretation of the “origin” of the film is that Griffith was its “author,” relying less on Dixon’s novels than on his own childhood sto- ries and research. Jeffrey Martin has argued that The Birth of a Natirm bor- rows heavily from Dixon’s plays and was changed only in the sense that Griffith took Dixon’s theatrical treatment and filmed it in a more cinematic manner. Thus, The Birth of a Nation is actually a much closer adaptation of Dixon’s novels than film historians had previously thought. This illustrates the cinematic transmission of Dixon’s racist ideology directly into the film.13 The impact of The Birth of a Nation on American filmmaking cannot be overestimated. It became a critical stimulus in persuading dozens of African- American men of the absolute necessity of creating cinematic versions of themselves. The Birth of a Nation, in a sense, set the stage for a generation of cinematic portrayals of African-American men. African-American film.- makers fought strongly to counter its derogatory images.}4 White filmmak- ers were afraid of being called racist (which haunted Griffith to his grave) so they often eliminated or modified African-American male portrayals. Prior to The Birth of a Nation, white filmmakers seemed politically unconcerned with their portrayals of African-American men on the screen. The intense furor over the movie, which resulted in censorship, demonstrations, and race riots, awakened white directors to the “danger” of blatantly racist portrayals of African Americans. Following 1915, the number of black male portrayals in mainstream white productions dropped significantly. African—American men were much less frequently cast in major roles (even when they were portrayed by white actors in blackface). Through the 19203, African-Amer- ican men tended to serve as props or scenery in studio productions. As Man— thia Diawara argues, “The Birth of a Nation constitutes the grammar book for Hollywood’s representation of Black manhood. . . . White people must occupy the center, leaving Black people with only one choice—to exist in re- lation to Whiteness.”15 A detailed analysis of the film is necessary in order to view the ways in which Griffith constructed racialized identity and to understand the specific images African Americans were acting against. Clyde Taylor claims that AFRICAN-AMERICAN CINEMA AND THE BIRTH OF A NATION 67 “mainstream cinema scholars and aestheticians . . . have kept the race issue at arm’s length from their exploration of the film’s technique?“ I hope to alleviate part of this problem by analyzing the “production of meaning.” )1 From the opening credits, Griffith makes it quite apparent that this story will be told in racialized terms. Of the leading characters, the three key African-American figures are described and defined in the credits by their race. Lydia is Stoneman’s “Mulatto” housekeeper. Gus is a renegade “Negro.” The pivotal white characters are described by their family relation- ship or by their profession. Therefore, African-American blood implies dif- ference; white Americans are not defined racially since they are the “norm.” A number of film historians have illustrated the difference between Griff- ith’s and Dixon’s racial mentalities by using Williamson-like divisions to apologize for Griffith’s “subtle” racism and to substantiate his genius. No doubt, Thomas Dixon is within the Radical camp; his rabid attacks on “up- pity” African-American men and their lust for white women illustrated his support for African-American deportation to Africa. Griffith is usually placed in the “Conservative” camp; film scholars argue that his racist ideology was not as extreme as that of Dixon.l7 Apologist film scholars focus on Griffith’s “genius” or discuss the “unconsciousness” of his racism.18 The opening scene illustrates Griffith’s vision of the “place” of African Americans in society. The title reads: “The bringing of the African to Amer- ica planted the first seeds of disunion.” The establishing shot shows African slaves looking purposefully subservient to a man dressed in colonial garb. Through this opening title, Griffith is clearly arguing two of the major tenets of the Radical southerner’s vision of race. First, he blames the disunion in fact, the entire Civil War conflict, on the presence of African Americans. Thus, the victims become the conspirators, the individuals guilty for bring- ing on the bloodiest war the nation had ever witnessed. Second, Griffith ar- gues that African Americans have no place in American society; their very presence can disrupt a nation and tear it apart. Thus, as Vincent Rocchio ar- gues, The Birth of a Nation does not begin with the introduction of main characters but with an overt historical thesis.” The second scene confuses the racial issue. The title reads: “The abolition- ists of the nineteenth century demanding the freeng ofthe slaves.” The scene shows a group of white abolitionists listening to a minister preach on the evils of slavery. The minister repeatedly points to an African—American man below him. The next shot shows a white man with his hands on the back of a twelve- year-old slave boy. An iris is placed around the two figures, cutting them off from the rest of the action. These scenes illustrate white paternalism over the .‘cn'u‘l fla- mu.“ AkC.‘ 23.15:...334.‘ r... . 70 BLACK MANHOOD ON THE SILENT SCREEN are never crossed (which completely denies the rape of thousands of black women in the South). In the North, where racial lines ofdemarcation were not clearly drawn, danger lurks everywhere. This is doubly true in the case 'of Lydia. Her mongrel ancesz makes her look wild—eyed and power hungry, an obvious example of the biological disaster that miscegenation can bring. In Griffith’s patriarchal ideology, clearly defined racial roles have to exist for a so- ciety to survive. The impending Civil War puts an end to the Stonemans’ visit to the Cameron plantation. Griffith inserts the first of several historical facsimiles at this point in the film—Abraham Lincoln signs a proclamation calling for 75,000 volunteers for the war effort. The use of facsimiles and quotations from popularized histories of the day is an attempt to make the film appear authentic. Griffith personally felt that the Civil War and Reconstruction pe- riod had never been told through a truly southern (read “accurate”) per- spective. He claimed, “I felt driven to tell the story—the truth about the South, touched by its eternal romance I had learned to know so well.”23 In The Birth of a Nation, Griffith attempts to combine a personalized roman- tic account of the era with a sense of historical realism. He succinctly used historical facsimiles to reinforce his own vision of events. The southern cause is portrayed as valiant and confident whereas north— ern mobilization appears dreary and dutiful. Both the Stonemans and the Camerons say farewell to the sons of the family as they volunteer to do their patriotic duty. Griffith vibrantly illustrates the glamour of southern gallantry. A grand ball is held in the Piedmont home of the Camerons after the First Battle of Bull Run. Men are handsomely dressed in their military uniforms and southern women parade in their finest. Bonfire celebrations are held in the streets. At daybreak, the southern troops depart for battle. Large crowds of southerners come out to greet them, including many African Americans (actual and blackface). At the Stoneman home, things are much more sub- dued. A blackfaced actor (with grotesque pancake makeup around his mouth) escorts Elsie to tell Stoneman that his sons are off to battle. The cel- ebratory nature of southern pageantry is missing; so is the close personal re— lationship between parent and child. Throughout the first third of the film, with slavery Still in existence in the South and without the turbulence the Civil War would bring to the North, racial relations are seemingly static. All African—American male portrayals are passive and accommodating. When Piedmont is threatened by the war, this scheme of racial representation changes. A title reads: “An irregular [mean- ing racially mixed?] force of guerillas raid the town.” Griffith points out that AFRICAN-AMERICAN CINEMA AND THE BIRTH OFA NATION 71 the first Negro regiments were raised in South Carolina (to give historical credence to the racial “threat”). There is chaos in the streets. The Cameron women are away from home and are desperate to return. The northern troops enter the town like monsters. They shoot down innocent citizens in the streets. In one of the most telling racialized scenes of the film, three African-American soldiers approach the Cameron front door. They move in an animalistic fashion as they carefully watch their backs. The Afiican-Amer- ican man who is in full frontal view of the spectator is half-dressed. He looks suspiciously around as he holds his rifle. The sexualized implication is not lost on the viewer: Griffith’s racial depiction is clear; this half-dressed black animal is going to use force to enter the home where the white women have just entered. They break into the house and are confronted by old man Cameron. He orders them out, but the scalawag white captain demands that the three recruits obey his order...
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