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 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.
|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:
The butler is heading for the back room when the mammy kicks him in the pants and then pushes him farther into the background.
|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.|