Themes in The Birth of a Nation
David Wark Griffith's epic, The Birth of a Nation, was released in 1915 to critical and commercial acclaim. An adaptation of Thomas Dixon's 1906 novel, The Clansman, this technical and narrative marvel chronicles the history of two families--the Southern Camerons and the Northern Stonemans--during the Civil War and Reconstruction era. As the first feature length motion picture in American film, it introduced a number of familiar cinematic devices such as the close-up and the tracking shot as well as more subtle and subversive coding of race and national identity. Some of the arguments implicit in the film can be understood in terms of the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil War. In "Into the Light: The Whiteness of the South in The Birth of a Nation," Richard Dyer identifies the logic behind using the two representative families: D.W. Griffith

Both are of equivalent social standings, both lose sons in the war, and both have children who fall in love with each other, the film ending in twin betrothals that will constitute two mixed (that is, North and South) white families, who will literally bear the race nation forward. Yet the film has very different emotional investments in these families. (1)

Dyer is right to identify D.W. Griffith's Southern leanings (where the majority of the action in the film occurs) but despite such imbalances, the fundamental message remains clear: regional differences can be transcended when viewed in racialized terms. As new black powers arise during Reconstruction, white stability is threatened and these families begin to transcend regional identities and as they form such groups as the Ku Klux Klan. This new union not only protects white women from the threat of miscegenation but it forms the basis for a new American way of life. Michael Rogin explains Griffith's ideological contribution to American film Blackface, White Noise which he writes "was to join ‘the intimate and the epic'; he linked the personal and the historical through racial fantasy. Transcendentalizing the material birth pangs of immigrant, industrial America, Griffith supplied the postbellum United States with its national myth of origins."(2)

Throughout the epic, the audience's relationship to the myth of origins is funneled through the domestic dramas of the representative families. As they literally bear witness to such pivotal events in American history as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the identity of the viewer collapses with that of the character. Simultaneously, the onscreen events onscreen become communal as well as personal. James Snead points out in white screen/black images that in addition to mythologizing the nation's history, questions of race appear in a similar way:
Mr. and Mrs. Ben Cameron In unprecedented ways, film form and racism coalesce into myth here, seemingly myths of entertainment but ultimately ones political in nature, ones that continue to assert their presence today....Throughout both parts, there are various "courtship plots" which are the true center of the spectator's interest, and which are resolved at the same time as the "race and revenge" plot. Ben Cameron and his sister
It is interesting to note that the scene-by-scene rhythm of the film almost compulsively alternates the "courtship plots" with the others. In the first part, love alternates with war; in the second part, love alternates with revenge against the black usurpers. The effect is to rivet our interest in a favorable romantic outcome while treating the political parts of the plot as mere trifling obstacles to the ultimate consummation between Ben Cameron and Elsie Stoneman.(3)

In this sense, the domestic drama not only serves as a history lesson--it is also a primer on race relations. Snead's assessment of the Civil War, however, should be recognized as more than simply a "trifling obstacle" in the scheme of Griffith's production. It is, after all, the fascination with the Civil War and its fiftieth anniversary that assist the film in becoming a critical and commercial success. In addition, the backdrop of Reconstruction serves as the point of departure for the race questions that arise in the film. In his seminal book on African-Americans in American film, Slow Fade to Black, Thomas Cripps notes, "Griffith caught the crest of the Civil War wave just before it broke." (4) The film's theme of national unity was part of a larger attempt at understanding the impact of the war. Cripps writes:

For Afro-Americans nothing could have been worse than the re-unions, intersectional lovers, grizzled veterans, intertwined flags, blue and gray bunting, and loyal darkies. Every trait seemed an abandonment of the harmony graced by approving hat-in-hand Negroes. The rush of movies commemorating the Civil War destroyed the chance for a humane treatemnt of Negroes on the screen. Instead, they restored Southern lore to the screen and taught a new urban generation a false nostalgia. (p. 30)

The mythification of African-Americans in the film serves as a catalyst for Griffith's larger American myth of origins. Only when the racialized threat appears are regional differences transcended. In this sense, analysis of the black characters in The Birth of a Nation--particularly the few acceptable black characters appearing in the film--will also provide us with a sense of the origins for the cinematic coding that would became so prevalent in the history of American film.