Thursday, September 30, 2010

Northerners and D. W. Griffith's 1915 film: The Birth of a Nation

The game is afoot! After a lot of secondary reading and a peek in to the historical record I am beginning to formulate some questions concerning D. W. Griffith's 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation.

A few things are striking me as curiously glossed over in the literature on the film - things that I believe are worthy of further inquiry. Most scholars tend to reduce the controversy surrounding this film to racial conflict. In many ways, they are absolutely correct. The film's profoundly racist depiction of black people - whether they be boot-licking sycophants, buffoons, or lustful rapists - without question incited animosity among individual blacks, groups such as the NAACP, and progressive whites.

But connected to this racial conflict is the nagging problem of sectional animosities held over from the Civil War. Only 50 years removed from Appomattox, the war was still fresh in the memories of those who had lived through it. Further, the sons and daughters of the Civil War generation remained attached to sectional interpretations of the war's causes and consequences.

Many scholars would have you believe otherwise. Historians such as David Blight and others have insisted that the memory of the war had - by the twentieth century - been reduced to a mutual celebration of valor and fortitude.

Poppycock. It is becoming apparent to me that many white northern Americans in 1915 saw the Confederate cause as an traitorous abomination and a revolt against law and order. It seems quite logical that groups and individuals would condemn a film that celebrated Confederates as patriots and applauded extra-legal organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.

In fact - Union veterans' organizations such as the Grand Army of the Republic led the charge against the screening of The Birth of a Nation suggesting that is was "untrue to the facts of history, [did] gross injustice to prominent and patriotic men of Reconstruction times, [was] insulting to colored citizens, and [tended] to glorify mob law."

This is sectionalism pure and simple. Northerners had fought to suppress rebellion - celebrating it 50 years after the fact seemed distasteful at best. Of course, millions in the North flocked to see The Birth of a Nation - and many were surely amazed at the spectacle of this new medium. But they didn't necessarily agree with the film's message.

At any rate, being one who resolutely believes that sectionalism is a central component in the study of American conflict and American history writ large, I am going to pursue this line of reasoning and see where it takes me. My driving questions: to what degree did the contentions of the Civil War remain in the twentieth-century North? How did the war generation influence subsequent generations? In what ways did The Birth of a Nation fuel sectional fires? And finally, the real nugget...are racial conflicts and sectional conflicts interwoven in American history?

I guess we'll just have to see.

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