D. W. Griffith’s infamous silent film The Birth of a Nation turns 100 years old this Sunday. In an excerpt from their new book Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics, Kay Whitlock and Michael Bronski investigate the legacy of that film’s “politically fraught public discussion of hate, race, power, and sex.”
The birth of the American film industry, first in New York and then Hollywood, changed how Americans thought about politics, law, and social justice. Beginning in colonial times, newspapers, pamphlets, and books were enormously influential in shaping public opinion. They helped formulate ideas about justice and helped an ever-growing reading population to engage in public conversations about ethics and morality. Images played a large part in this (think of the illustrations of abused slaves in abolitionist literature), and the advent of photography in the mid-nineteenth century radically transformed the cultural influence of images.
Susan Sontag argues in On Photography that the photograph’s power is that it provides evidence: “Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we are shown a photograph.” The potential for photograph-as-evidence to incite moral outrage is great, although it may be one of numerous responses. Matthew Brady’s photographs of the Civil War dead in mass graves produced moral outrage at war, sadness, or even a further incitement to fight. Sontag notes that “what determines the possibility of being affected morally by photographs is the existence of relevant political consciousness.” Images do not exist outside of a political context.
The relationship between an image and moral judgment was complicated by the motion picture. Large numbers of people could be powerfully influenced, as a group, by viewing moving images that conveyed messages through emotional and psychological narratives. Even as they understood images were staged and edited to create a narrative, audiences experienced the images as physical and moral evidence. While the interpretation of images was shaped by each individual’s preexisting political consciousness, films contained the potential to stimulate question about and to shape individuals’ perceptions of how power shaped human and social relationships.
The American film industry began in the 1890s and quickly captured the country’s imagination. One of the first films to be publicly screened was William Heise’s The Kiss (1896). The forty-seven-second reenactment, from a Broadway play, of a heterosexual kiss was frequently banned, because evidence of this up-close intimacy was considered indecent. (Three decades later the motion picture industry, under pressure from organized religion, would begin to censor itself.) In 1903, Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, a twelve-minute narrative with a plot, often called the first silent movie, presented audiences with what were to become salient themes in Hollywood films: greed, robbery, violence, murder, and vigilante justice. These two films set the standard for what audiences loved in films—what critic Pauline Kael insisted was the enduring appeal of movies captured in the phrase “kiss-kiss bang-bang”—sex and action.
Sex and action exist in narratives, and in 1915 D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation produced a politically fraught public discussion of hate, race, power, and sex. This was a sprawling film, three hours and ten minutes long, that celebrated the birth of the Ku Klux Klan in the South during Reconstruction. The Birth of a Nation’s complicated plot involved Northern and Southern families with overlapping romantic interactions, abolition, duplicitous freed slaves, rape, miscegenation, and a “happy ending” in which freed slaves are prevented from voting by the Klan. The recently formed NAACP protested the film’s jubilant depiction of race hatred, and riots broke out in several cities where the film was shown. The themes of predatory black male sexuality and voter suppression resonate today, but the more lasting message of the film is the idea that justice can only be found by “taking it into your own hands.”
The Birth of a Nation spoke to and inflamed racial tensions in the early twentieth century. It also resonated with the evolving tensions around immigration, since some immigrants—Irish, Italians, and eastern European Jews among them—were not considered culturally or racially white. American individualism dominated public discourse about immigration, and the narrative of the Klan’s violently righting the injustices of Reconstruction dovetailed with long-standing ideas about American individualism.
Between 1890 and 1920, thirteen million immigrants from northern and southern Europe arrived in the United States. Welcomed as the new pilgrims and embraced by industrialists as cheap labor, immigrants lived in cities across the United States. Caught in a vortex of conflicting enactments of American individualism, they were told they could succeed through hard work, even though they were persecuted, sometimes violently, as intrusive foreigners by nativist groups including the Ku Klux Klan. The quest for extralegal justice is at the heart of American individualism in The Birth of a Nation and provides a template for the hate frame.
The Birth of a Nation set one standard for how movie audiences imagined and internally negotiated violence and justice. Other films took a very different view. Hollywood produced numerous films (most of them now forgotten) about the hardships immigrants faced in their new homeland. E. Mason Hopper’s feature-length Hungry Hearts (1922) is based on Polish-Jewish immigrant Anzia Yezierska’s short stories. Yezierska so defined the New York immigrant experience that producer Samuel Goldwyn, himself an immigrant, immediately bought the rights to her novels and stories. Her instant success earned her the title “the ghetto Cinderella.”
In Hungry Hearts a poor immigrant Jewish woman, who supports her family by taking in laundry, works ceaselessly to fix up and paint her apartment and make it, literally, white. When she succeeds, her assimilated Jewish landlord, claiming the apartment is now worth more, raises the rent. Unable to pay, she is threatened with eviction. In a fury she destroys the kitchen with an ax and is brought to court. The gentile judge finds her not guilty and argues that in America no one should be exploited. At the close of the film the woman and her family move to a country cottage with a white picket fence, and her daughter marries the lawyer who represented them in court. (In Yezierska’s story the woman becomes homeless.)
Hungry Hearts, catering to an immigrant audience eager to see their lives and their dreams on the screen, is typical of films that acknowledged immigrant hardships and provided happy endings. The Birth of a Nation predicates injustice based upon race—and reverses who is oppressed. Hungry Hearts ignores racism and focuses on poverty and economic justice. Utilizing political archetypes—the landlord is bad because he is a landlord; the judge is good because he is an American judge—the film presents an idealized notion of American justice, based on the idea that social roles dictate individual values, that is as seamless as it is unrealistic. This vision of justice, incongruent with the realities of American racism and economic disadvantage, remained a constant in American film.
These ideas of justice were, by and large, about citizens who were considered “white,” including in the rare films that dealt with anti-Semitism such as Mervyn LeRoy’s They Won’t Forget (1937), which was based on the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, a Jew. African American characters, presented as domestics or porters, were always peripheral to a central white narrative. James Whale’s Showboat (1936) displayed glimmers of a more sophisticated understanding of racial animus, but its radical potential was overwhelmed by the use of racial stereotypes and narrative that ultimately focused on white characters. Between 1915 and 1950 a small, vibrant industry consisted of “race films” produced or directed by and starring African Americans. Approximately five hundred feature-length and short films were made for and played almost exclusively to black audiences. Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1919), for example, dealt with the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, mixed-race African Americans, and the education of black children. Overwhelmingly, and up until the early 1960s, Hollywood films represented and reinforced the realities of segregation.
Kay Whitlock is a writer and activist who has been involved with racial, gender, queer, and economic justice movements since 1968. She is coauthor of the award-winning Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States and cofounder and contributing editor for the weekly Criminal Injustice series at CriticalMassProgress.com. She lives in Missoula, Montana.
Michael Bronski has been involved in gay liberation as a political organizer, writer, and editor for more than four decades. The author of several award-winning books, including A Queer History of the United States, he most recently coauthored “You Can Tell Just by Looking”: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People. Bronski is Professor of the Practice in Activism and Media in the Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.