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July 4th Reflections on The Birth of a Nation

The worst thing about D. W. Griffith's landmark film is how good it was. Perhaps the same can be said of America
The seed of America was planted with racism at its root

Today as an American, I think about the birth of our nation.

We head into the 244th birthday of these United States with a lot to reflect on. A botched initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic and a hasty reopening of the economy have resulted in soaring infection rates. Meanwhile, most of the rest of the world strides steadily toward recovery. Americans are more polarized than ever, and an egomaniacal clown sits in the White House (excuse me, I meant Mar-a-Lago), twisting the U.S. presidency into a reality TV show broadcasted from Twitter.

Among other issues, the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Elijah McClain, Rayshard Brooks, and many more have reignited the fight against racism and police brutality in America.

Many people are tired of hearing about race. Perhaps they feel that it is time to be “post-racial” or “color-blind” and stop talking about race and racism in general. Such views are naive and harmful. The seed of America was planted with racism at its root, and the sapling that was our young nation was raised on the labor of Black slaves. How can we speak about the tree that we’ve nurtured without considering the long shadow of racism cast by its branches?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

244 years ago, Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence and famously proclaimed that “all men are created equal.” This statement, however, did not stop him from owning over 600 slaves throughout his adult life. When we think of “Independence” Day, we must remember the contradiction and hypocrisy inherent in the birth of our nation.

As a student of film, I also think today about The Birth of a Nation (1915). Just as the establishment of America was a ground-breaking triumph of democratic values over autocratic monarchy, D.W. Griffith’s film served an equally ground-breaking impact in the world of cinema.

The film chronicles the lives of two families in the Reconstruction era — the pro-Union Stoneman family and the pro-Confederacy Cameron family — interweaving historical facts with historical fiction. It was then the longest and most complex film ever made, and it pioneered many of the narrative storytelling techniques that transformed cinema into the art-form as we now know it. President Woodrow Wilson compared it to “writing history with lightning,” and the film was the first ever to be screened at the White House.

Movie poster for "The Birth of a Nation"

Unfortunately, The Birth of a Nation also echoes the declaration of our independence in its formalization of racism. The film was originally called The Clansman (as in the Ku Klux Klan) and was based on a 1905 novel and play by the same name. The film portrays Black people (played by white actors in blackface) as lustful and unintelligent — establishing harmful stereotypes that would inform racist myths of Black men sexually endangering white women, among many others.

The film also glorified the Ku Klux Klan as heroes who served to maintain a civil society and preserve American values. This portrayal had a lasting impact: William J. Simmons revived the KKK a few months after the film’s initial release, adopting iconography from the film such as the burning cross and the white cloak that we associate with the KKK today. Every lynching, every act of terrorism, and every hate crime committed by the Klan since 1915 — it can all be traced in part to the release of this film.

I agree with film critic Richard Brody that “the worst thing about Birth of a Nation is how good it is.” As described by Jonathan Kline in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, virtually every film made thereafter has utilized techniques that originated in this film: dramatic close-ups, tracking shots, expressive camera movements, parallel action sequences, crosscutting, fade-outs, color tinting for dramatic purposes, usage of an orchestral film score, interweaving historical fact with fiction, and even the narrative technique of building up to a dramatic climax. It was the highest-grossing film at the box-office until 1939, which only underlines just how many people were subjected to its influence. The greatest film of its generation could have dealt with any subject matter. Unfortunately, we got the one that happened to be a KKK superhero film, and we have to understand the consequences of that impact.

We have to understand how racist mythologies and romanticized white supremacy have been seamlessly woven into the cinematic narratives we all grew up on. We must recognize the power of content (especially in mass-appealing media like film or TV) to shape our culture and politics. The Birth of a Nation is the ultimate case study of why diversity in content creation is needed — so that the art that inspires us can also be a vessel for progress, rather than perpetuating the comfort of the oppressor.

Perhaps the worst thing about our country is also how good it (supposedly) is. America has always claimed to support all people, all beliefs, all speech, and all ways of worship. We have always claimed to believe in democracy, justice, and liberty. We are the most powerful nation on Earth, and we influence billions with our policies, our investments, and our culture. We’ve tasted greatness before, and even as more of us finally wake up to our failure thus far to wield influence responsibly, there are many of those who wish to simply make America great again.

We cannot afford to make America great again because that past greatness was grounded in hypocrisy, denial, and naive romanticization of our nation’s darkness. Rather, we must mold the future instead of reshaping the past. When I think of The Birth of a Nation, I see something that is static and final. Our nation itself, however, is still growing. We have the power and responsibility to nurture it with progress, not privileged complacency.

As we mark another birthday for our nation, let us think not only of our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Let us think of the Americans who never experienced these rights — people like George Floyd or Breonna Taylor — and think of what we can do to ensure a better country for future generations.

I hope for a day when we can truly be proud of our nation. I hope for the day when we can speak our truths, look around, and see that they have finally become self-evident.