The Birth of a Nation: Lighting and (mostly “non”) camera movement, racism, and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination reenacted a mere 50 years after

I’m teaching my film studies course this quarter, and this post was actually prompted by the utilitarian need to have a couple of neatly-cut film clips for efficient class use. But because it might also be interesting for people outside my class to see, I’m going to publish it as a post.

So tonight we’re doing some film history, and I want to show (and share with you 🙂 ) a few quick things about The Birth of a Nation.

First of all, it was the first feature film; that is, it was the first film to  resemble what we think of today as a “movie.” There were no “movie theaters” as we think of them today because there also was no real film industry yet. Prior to this point, films were short and had only for a decade or so begun containing any sort of story narrative (like a person being rescued from a house fire or a kid playing a prank  by standing on a hose and then stepping off again as soon as the hapless gardener holds the nozzle up to his face to see why no water is coming out). More commonly movies just documented interesting things like a train moving toward the viewer or people walking along a street or a woman performing a dance. The film industry was only slowly becoming aware of what movies could be.

The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, timed to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of  the end of the American Civil War. Although the film was widely distributed to cities all over the United States, it did not show in “movie theaters” per se. Instead it showed at whatever venues a community had available: civic centers, auditoriums, and theaters. People attending communal remembrances at cemeteries and marking long-deceased relatives’ graves with flowers also assembled at to watch this epic tale of America’s struggle between North and South and their ultimate union in a newly (re)constituted United States (i.e., the “birth” of a new “nation”).

Interesting fact number two: the Ku Klux Klan was largely a phenomenon confined to the American south prior to the release of The Birth of a Nation. However, following the heroic portrayal Klan’s supposed origins in the film, Klan membership numbers across the country soared. You may be aware that this film has received extensive criticism for its  racism, from its stereotyped portrayals of African-Americans ( see the clip below)  to its use of white actors in blackface to play many of the black characters.

Aside, however: “black face” was not uncommon during this era, and The Birth of a Nation merely reflected this fact of American culture. The “minstrel show” was a common form of entertainment  in America throughout the 1800s and well into the 20th century. See here, for example, Al Jolson singing his signature tune, “Mammy,” in The Jazz Singer, his 1927 smash hit famous for being the first “talkie” (the first motion picture with synchronized sound).

The main reason I show clips from The Birth of a Nation, though, is to demonstrate two things.

First, I want students to see how stationary the camera was and how tied to live theater cinema as an art form still was.

The second is to show how Hollywood used natural sunlight (with film sets open to the sky above) to take advantage of Los Angeles’ Mediterranean climate (lots of sunshine, very little rain) and become the center of the film industry worldwide. Here are some clips in which you can see clear visual evidence of this.

In the first, look at the top of dancers’ heads, especially the couple in the foreground. Can you see that rim of bright light crowning their hair?

Here’s another example. Again you can see the rims of sunlight atop the actors’ heads. Watch the floor of the stage as the curtain rises. Bright sunlight floods the set and casts dark shadows from directly overhead. Also, wait a few more seconds for the clip to show a “spotlight” simulation that appears to be a resourceful additional use of that bright overhead sun. Doesn’t it look as though they’ve rigged up a mirror to throw a reflection onto the stage in mimicry of a spotlight’s circle?

I also find this clip interesting for its recreation of Lincoln’s assassination. Just think, at only fifty years after it happened, there were people still alive who would have remembered reading about it in the newspapers and maybe even standing alongside the tracks as Lincoln’s funeral train rolled past. Seeing Lincoln’s assassination in the movie makes me realize of how much living memory the scene must have encompassed at the time it was filmed and first viewed.

Here’s something that I find a little disturbing: these excerpts from a book by Woodrow Wilson, who had previously been the president of Princeton University and was, in fact, the sitting President of the United States at the time of this movie’s release.

I’m still not sure of exactly what I think about this quote in terms of its accuracy and its original context, but I do think that having it in this film—following very closely the scene of Lincoln’s assassination—gave the approval of the U.S. Presidency to racist messages embedded in a movie that pretty blatantly (and melodramatically) attributed all the troubles of Reconstruction to scheming bad guys in the North and newly-freed African-Americans in the South.

No wonder the Klu Klux Klan, which re-founded itself in 1915 after having largely died out decades earlier, grew so rapidly in the years following The Birth of a Nation‘s release that by the mid-1920s its members numbered around 85,000.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
This entry was posted in History, Life, Movies and film, Political Analysis, Popular culture, Teaching and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Birth of a Nation: Lighting and (mostly “non”) camera movement, racism, and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination reenacted a mere 50 years after

  1. MELewis says:

    Fascinating evidence of how the film industry held a mirror up to reflect society even in the early days…and how the ‘bounce back’ of those images influenced the course of history.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re so right! Maybe when we condemn a work of art what we’re really doing is using it as a scapegoat because we don’t want to examine our own values and behaviors too closely. I hadn’t thought about that before in quite that way.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m glad you are keeping history, such as it is, alive with the next generation!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sally Cissna says:

    This is fascinating, not only in reiterating the historical perspective of Wilson, but the reinforcement of already existing racist ideas in the the communities of both the north and the south. Wilson was not a very popular President. He was against suffrage for women and some of the most “exciting” protests for suffrage happened at the gates to the White House.

    Liked by 1 person

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