Depictions of African-Americans in The Birth of a Nation

In Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, Donald Bogle writes that The Birth of a Nation offered a catalog to the different African-American types appearing in contemporary popular culture: "This extraordinary, multidimensional movie was also the first feature film to deal with a black theme and at the same time to articulate fully the entire pantheon of black gods and goddesses."(1) As with any form of mythology, the evil characters are far more interesting and crucial to the main narrative and so, as a result, they receive decidedly more screentime.

Bogle identifies the threat to white America in the triad of the buck (a psychotic sexual predator such as the film's Gus or the mulatto Silas Lynch), the brute (anonymous blacks who abuse their powers such as the members of the Black Congress), and the sexual mulatto female (as Senator Stoneman's mistress, Lydia, who might be understood in terms of Deborah Gray White's Jezebel figure). One interesting aspect of these black characters is what might be understood as their different degrees of "blackness." Richard Dyer recognizes the confused nature of racial identity presented in the film's mulatto characters when he writes:

The black buck Gus
The narrative pivots on the notion of blurring categories through miscegenation.... The tensest narrative set pieces--Gus's pursuit of Flora, Silas's proposal to Elsie-- concern acts whose violence expresses the horror of the interracial mingling of blood as much as of male domination of women. In the racialist imagination, miscegenation is rape. However, the use of the mulatto as the key to understanding the racial history of the South always courts two distinct problems. First, miscegenation always implies--even while it seldom acknowledges--a history of white as well as black sexuality. It takes two to miscegenate, and you have to have one of each colour....Secondly, there is also something potentially dangerous (to white identity) in the suggestion that mulattos are more dangerous than pure black people.(2)

Dyer reads the depiction of power-hungry mulattoes as indication that racial identity in the South is already complicated (p. 167). The pursuit of the two white women, Flora and Elsie, by a black man and a mulatto only complicate matters more.
With the understanding that miscegenation has occurred and it has damaged society, the white families (and, by association, the audience) seek to keep things in simple, black and white, terms. One prime example of this desire for clear figures in the mythology appears in the contrast between Lydia, the scheming light-skinned female, and the Cameron's mammy, who Donald Bogle describes as "representative of the all-black woman, over-weight, middle-aged, and so dark, so thoroughly black, that it is preposterous even to suggest that she be a sex object. Instead she was desexed" (p. 14-15).

To borrow Snead's definitions, it seems the color of the mammy's skin (especially when worn by a white actor in blackface as in this case) is as much of a marker as the white clothes she wears to demonstrate her servility. This character's features are so foreign to white aesthetics of beauty that she is not a potential temptation to the white males of the film (as Lydia is to Senator Stoneman). Instead the mammy is an asexual creature whose loyalty never needs to be questioned. This is demonstrated in The Birth of a Nation when the Cameron's mammy encounters a black butler from the North.

In this scene, the Stonemans leave their Northern home and arrive via carriage at the Cameron's house. As Senator Stoneman and his hosts enter the front room and move through the door to the right, the black butler follows with a two suitcases in hand. When he sees the mammy, he tries to give her the bags. She steps back, puts her hands on her hips, and then points to the room in the background. When he doesn't respond, she points again and then clenches her hand in a fist. The intertitle reads:

Yo' low down black trash

The butler is heading for the back room when the mammy kicks him in the pants and then pushes him farther into the background.
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After a series of exterior shots where the younger Cameron sister is introduced to her brother's girlfriend, we return to the interior of the house where the butler follows the elder Stoneman into the scene. The mammy follows them and when the senator exits the frame, she bows in his direction. As she begins to speak to him, the butler raises and lowers his eyebrows at her in a suggestive manner. After looking to the camera, the mammy changes places with the butler as they both move from one side of the frame to the other.

Mammy looks over her shoulder and the butler is again raising and lowering his eyebrows at her. The mammy opens eyes wide and stares toward the camera. When she looks at the butler again, he is walking away from her but still raising and lowering his eyebrows. She faces the camera for one final moment with her mouth wide open before the intertitle appears, reading:
Dem free Niggers...

These two exchanges between the butler and mammy are played for laughs but the underlying messages reinforce common notions of loyalty and mythologies concerning black sexuality. At first, the butler attempts to instill a sense of superiority over the mammy as he tries to hand her the bags. She responds with a series of threatening gestures and words that prove to him that even though he might be from the North and possessed his freedom longer than her, he is still a servant. As a temporary sense of equilibrium seems to set in, the mammy asserts her own dominance by kicking and pushing him into the back room. Since the butler is entering what is essentially the mammy's home (or domestic territory), it only makes sense that he is the subordinate one. Her victory, however, is only temporary.

North and South collide When the camera returns to document their interaction--once again away from the watchful eye of their masters--the butler turns the tables on the mammy by asserting his sexual identity. The leering gestures he makes towards her are surprising for two reasons: his assertion of sexual experience (if raising and lowering of the eyebrows can allow for as much) and the absence of similar feelings or interests in her response. Whether or not she recognizes the gestures for what they are (it seems they are more for the audience's understanding than hers) she fails to respond properly--either in accepting or refuting the advances. As an asexual figure versed only in the demands of the domestic, the mammy is quick to prevent any challenge to her authority in the household. That is why she pushes and kicks the butler into the back room. But when the butler begins making sexual overtures, she dismisses the actions as that of Northern blacks who are free and somewhat crazy.

In this sense, the butler can be understood as being similar to Gus, the black Union soldier who chases Flora to her death. The insatiable sex drive of the black male is an established cinematic trope that appears in servants and soldiers alike. The mammy, however, fulfills the role of the sexually naive servant who lives for her white masters. James Snead reinforces this sentiment when he notes the marking involved in her costume which: "in her white apron and cap signifies the message ‘here is a uniformed housekeeper,' but the underlying code is ‘blacks are customary as servants; black is the natural color of servility" (p. 37-38). That loyalty is made apparent to the audience when she and her male counterpart attempt to save their master from the clutches of Union soldiers who arrested him for being affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan.