Thursday, March 24, 2016

Analysis: The Birth Of A Nation

The Birth Of A Nation is a work famous as "the Klan movie". While most people haven't seen it, many know of its reputation and legacy. It was one of the very first "narrative movies" as we conceive of them today (hours long, with a specific story structure). It was blatantly and obviously racist. It contributed to the re-popularization and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. In modern discussions, film buffs awkwardly and delicately try to separate their praise for the movie's techniques from its hateful message; as a result, it currently has a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Whatever else is going on with the movie, there is one unmistakable aspect of its legacy: people agree that it was a "product of its times" (although it wasn't - it was considered racist even back then), and thus, that it could never happen again. When it is brought up as an example of the harmful propagandist effects of a work of fiction, it is usually dismissed. The American public would never accept such an overtly hateful movie, and they would never be persuaded by a work of fiction to engage in violent action against a racial minority.

The reality of the matter is, as much as modern Americans try to separate themselves from their more overt forebears, the legacy of that era, and the underpinnings of its racist morality, have not even remotely gone away. And thus arises the core of this project: it actually wouldn't take that many changes to make the movie palatable to modern audiences. At its core, The Birth Of A Nation shares many story beats and concepts with movies being released even today, and its morals are in line with the politics of many modern politicians.

Maybe you're more optimistic about this than I am. Maybe you think society's evolved too far to fall prey to such blatant propaganda. Maybe you think modern audiences wouldn't accept overt, sweeping historical revisionism that plays into an obvious racial agenda. But if that's what you're thinking, then unfortunately I'm forced to remind you about 300. And I'm also forced to remind you how well it did.

Are you ready?

Plot & Premise: Family, Revenge and Dishonor

The Birth Of A Nation centers around two families: the northern Stonemans and the southern Camerons. The story begins just prior to the civil war; the Stoneman family visits the Cameron family's estate, and there is some positive feeling between the two families. Shortly thereafter, the war breaks out. During the war, the Cameron estate is ransacked by malicious black soldiers (operating under a white leader); the Cameron women are only rescued by the timely intervention of  the Confederate soldiery. The war ends soon after, with several members of both clans dead or wounded.

After Lincoln's death, the Stoneman patriarch (an abolitionist congressman) is able to push through legislation intended to punish the south. He travels to the area with a psychopathic Mulatto, Silas Lynch. Swaggering black soldiers march through the streets, abusing white civilians and preventing them from voting (while committing vote fraud themselves). The new state legislature, mostly black, engages in disgraceful and vulgar behavior (including the messy consumption of fried chicken), whites are required to salute black people, and mixed-race marriage is legalized.

During this time, Ben Cameron notices that white children are dressing as ghosts in order to scare black children. In a Batman-like leap of logic, Cameron formulates that dressing white adults like ghosts will scare black adults as well. Ben's sister Flora is followed into the woods by a black soldier, who says he wants to marry her. Fleeing the implied rape, Flora throws herself off a cliff rather than submit to him. Ben Cameron's new vigilante organization - the Ku Klux Klan - hunts down and lynches the soldier, and delivers his corpse to Silas Lynch.

In response, Lynch fights back against the Klan. The Cameron family patriarch is arrested because of Ben Cameron's Klan costume, but he is busted out of jail with the help of loyal black servants, as well as one of the Stoneman family's sons and sympathetic Union soldiers. In the meantime, one of the Stoneman daughters pleads for mercy for the Camerons; in response, Lynch attempts to rape her. In a bit of "it could happen to you" irony, Congressman Stoneman is happy when Lynch says he wants to marry a white woman, but furious when he realizes the white woman is his own daughter. The Klan mounts a rescue of the Stoneman daughter, capturing Lynch. Afterwards, the earlier scene of voter intimidation is reversed - the Klan protects the rights of white voters while keeping away the brutish black soldiers. The white citizens of both North and South are united against "the real enemy", and the film ends on an optimistic note of peace and harmony among white Americans.

Implications & Themes

When you get down to it, what does this movie do? And then, by contrast, what do other movies do?

First and foremost, this movie plays on the emotional fears of its audience in order to convince them that those fears are real. It does not present evidence or claim to educate; its appeal is entirely rooted in visceral reaction. Yet, despite this, it is "convincing" to them. It portrays a situation so horrible that people cannot help but treat it as inevitable. Is it alone in this? Of course not. How many people cite 1984 or Brave New World or Fahrenheit 451 or even Idiocracy as the inevitable, real result of political policies? All of those works are fictional, yet people push those images into their mind and live in fear of them coming to pass. Even though they will acknowledge that those works are fictional, and not backed up with actual research or statistics, they will still cite them when discussing their real fears and concerns.

Secondly, the movie brings a "positive" message - not only that black people should be controlled and suppressed, but that white people (and blacks who know their place) should come together in order to prevent swaggering bullies from running their lives. This is a key element. People are not willing to commit to evil, but evil can be easily phrased in a way that makes it seem logical, even moral. It's not "racist" because there are good blacks (who know their place). It's not about hating blacks, it's about loving whites. It's not about discrimination, it's about protecting your own rights. The movie presents itself not as an extreme, but as a moderate, neutral opinion - slavery was bad, but "anti-slavery" (and "reverse racism") is just as bad. Does that one sound familiar?

Thirdly, the movie crafts its situation so that it is unambiguous and unmistakable. The black villains in this movie are "thugs", and I use that word for a very specific reason. The "thug" is an omnipresent figure in movies, past, present, and future. The "thug" is a hostile individual who is overtly, even spitefully evil and cruel. He hurts, he kills, he rapes. Any attempt to negotiate with a "thug" will meet in failure. The only proper response to a "thug" is violence, or torture if you need information out of one. There is no need for remorse or moral questioning; if you feel bad about it, it is made obvious that the "thug" forced you to do these things by his unthinkingly hateful actions, and of course he deserved it in any case. Within the fictional scenario presented, the actions of an organization like the Klan are absolutely justified. The problem, of course, is that the scenario in question is far from realistic, but when people are bombarded with this stereotype in every outlet of media, they start to believe it's true despite a lack of real evidence.

In short, The Birth Of A Nation is a movie that uses effective, manipulative techniques in order to blur the line between reality and fiction. It plays off of people's fears and desires, and crafts a particular, unrealistic situation in order to convince its audience that the solution it presents is the only effective one.

Comparisons To More Contemporary Works

Death Wish. A liberal architect's family is attacked by thugs, and the liberal architect is forced to understand that his lefty peacenik ideas are false and that violence is the only true answer. Both Death Wish and The Birth Of A Nation revel in the idea of a progressive-minded northern liberal being forced to realize that his high-minded naivete is empowering the brutish criminal class, and eventually coming to the understanding that violence is the only answer for these unthinking thugs. This phenomenon has a trope of its own, and it plays off of the idea that conservatives see progressives as "naive" individuals whose values don't work in real life.

The Punisher. Come on, do I even have to explain this one? The Punisher is an ex-soldier whose family was killed by thugs. As a result, he becomes a vigilante and kills thugs forever. Ben Cameron is an ex-soldier whose sister died because of a thuggish rapist black man. As a result, he leads a team of vigilantes and kills black thugs forever. The core motivation ("they hurt my family, now I'm morally obligated to hurt them forever") is a well-established trope that exists throughout fiction.

American Sniper. Chris Kyle refers to his Iraqi enemies as "savages" and states that he is glad to have killed them. He supports the "good Iraqis" (i.e. those cooperating with the government) but views his enemies, unequivocally, as unthinking monsters. His position has been criticized, yes - but also defended pretty widely. The Federalist, in particular, says that Kyle "called evil what it was", and assures its readers that his view of the world was totally 100% correct. In the same way, The Birth Of A Nation builds itself on atrocities committed by vengeful blacks, and assures its audience that those actions are incredibly common and statistically significant. "It's not racist", the movie assures you, "they really are all like that! Stereotypes exist for a reason!"

All of this is why it's ridiculous to argue that you can have a violent narrative without it being "political". As soon as you assign an enemy, it's political. As soon as you're pushing a view of the world, it's political. As soon as you make an emotional appeal, it's political. The idea that politics is this sanitized, academic concept comes entirely from privilege. Politics is life. Politics is every facet of life. You cannot live your life without it being political. You cannot talk about life without it being political.

But politics isn't just "what you do". It's also how you see the world. And in fiction, the way a writer sees the world affects what he or she thinks is "realistic" in their work. And this is the scary part: D.W. Griffith did not necessarily think he was being "unrealistic". He may well have thought he was being true to reality, albeit presenting a narratively clear-cut story. This is what "politics" means. When people talk about politics in media, they usually identify certain ideological strains as being political. When other ideologies seep into politics, they're identified as being "normal" - i.e. "that's just how things are, that's not 'political'". You can have a movie where a heroic American guns down cruel, thuggish foreigners who do not exhibit a single human characteristic, and people will still say that the movie "doesn't mean anything" or is "just a regular action movie". If you criticize it as unrealistic then the conversation will change from "it's just fiction" to "well, thugs like that exist in real life! Look at ISIS!" Recently, I was engaged in an argument where my opponent used the Spartans as a justification for enemies who do not surrender in games, specifically in Tom Clancy's The Division. Which is to say, this person was using an extremist culture of people raised as warriors from birth in order to justify the AI behavior of opportunistic looters in a simulacrum of modern New York City. And he wasn't even right about the Spartans never surrendering.

This lack of self-reflection, coupled with the emotionally influencing effects of propaganda-like material, is what scares me about "fiction". You don't need something to be "true". What you need is to convince people, subconsciously, that it is. And you need to also convince them that belief in that particular effect or phenomenon is normal, and disbelief in it is extremist. This is an invocation of the Bandwagon Effect - in short, popularity legitimizes, and the more popular a belief is, the more popular it becomes. So when you've got movie after movie presenting a particular image, you start to see that image as "normal". And once something is normal, you stop thinking about it - and when someone says "hey, maybe you should think about it", you get mad. Why do they have to drag politics into this? Why do they have to make a fuss?

So what would happen in The Birth Of A Nation was released today? Some people would say "that's racist as hell" and other people would tell them "it's just a movie, keep your politics out of it", or "thugs exist in real life, reverse racism is real, someone called me mayonnaise boy", or both at the same time. If you made it about Muslims instead of black people, there'd be no question of the vocal support this movie would receive. They'd talk about how brave the filmmaker is for presenting the "unvarnished truth", regardless of the Politically Correct SJW Cucks trying to tear him down. And even people who disagreed with the film's morals would go "yeah, but it's a fun action movie. It's possible to acknowledge that a work is problematic without dismissing it entirely." It would make so much money, you guys.

Nothing has changed. In a hundred years, nothing has changed.


  1. Great, now I gotta watch Birth of a Nation.

    1. Not really worth it. People love going nuts about its "amazing cinematography" or whatever but it's a silent movie with cards for dialogue. It's extremely boring to sit through and if you want basically the same message you could just play Bioshock Infinite instead.

      But B:I is also pretty boring so you should probably just do something that's actually worthwhile

    2. Speaking of games as "art" have you played "Bubsy 3D: Bubsy Visits the James Turrell Retrospective"?

      Or more hilariously "Sonic Dreams Collection" or "Crap! No One Loves Me!" by ArcaneKid$?

    3. I have played Bubsy Visits The James Turrell Retrospective and Sonic Dreams Collection. They both just seemed like abstract "blow-your-mind" edgy things, no real payoff. Not bad, but not great either.

  2. When are you tackling Don Quixote? I think you and Miguel de Cervantes would have a lot in common, jesus christ aside.

    1. I don't really have any plans to write about Don Quixote. I think it's a good book and has some good messages but it's mostly self-explanatory.

  3. Could you write about how racism, sexism and such other forms of discrimination start out within people? Is it born out of their desire to think themselves as better, or out of some inherent need for prejudice their minds feed off?

    I would also like if you talked about the claim that the number of inventions has gone up because of the idea of owning an invention being formally legitimized and encouraged, while it's true that some important inventions were made after the introduction of the concept a lot of inventions were made before it which were more important for society as a whole in my opinion, like the wheel.

    1. I don't talk as much about the actual anthropological roots of discrimination; this blog is more about how fiction plays a role in that. As for inventions, that's really got nothing to do with what I write about.

    2. That's alright. I found your link to an excerpt of Umberto Eco's Ur Fascism and it does explain some aspects of fascism to an extent. Anyway do you have plans for your next article? I don't comment often but I do enjoy the recent articles you've been putting up and how you've been exposing the problematic nature of mass media as well as the flawed attitudes prevelant in society.

    3. Not really. I think I've written about everything I need to. I covered the practical effects of believability years ago and I've been harping on "fiction is propaganda" ever since. I think The Birth of a Nation pretty much covers all my other complaints.

    4. Any interest in tackling Pixar? For one, the hijacking of children's movies to always require the emotionally manipulative "scene that makes you cry" and how people believe that means good storytelling.

      I saw tweets from professors/teachers saying how they'd be teaching Inside Out in their psychology classes because they apparently believe it's a useful and true representation of what the human brain does. 2015 and we've gotten even stupider than Freud.

      Pan's Labyrinth seems up your alley for criticism. "Let's mix fantasy with a real historic war and make it ultra simplistic and unambiguous as to what is good and evil." Devil's Backbone as well.

    5. My girlfriend and I actually saw Finding Dory on Saturday and, yeah, there were a lot of scenes that just felt really "we're going to make you cry even if it doesn't make sense" stuff. I also watched Zootopia with her before that and, man, that movie does not know where it wants to go. Really, metaphors shouldn't be used by people who haven't actually thought them out. Every change made affects the comparison.

    6. I want to see Zootopia, am skipping Dory though due to Pixar fatigue.

      It seems from past posts that you like Aliens. That was another thing I wanted to mention to you for a potential topic. I saw it for the first time just a few weeks ago in the theater. Early on as you know there are some sexist and racist "jokes" made by one or more characters. There is indication to the audience (by a look on Ripley's face) that we are of course supposed to find this abhorrent.

      Here's the thing. A bunch of dudes in the theater laughed. And I don't mean they laughed at what a misogynist boor the character is, I mean they laughed at the jokes. This is precisely why "it's satire bro" is complete bullshit at worst, or doesn't work at best.

      In this case I do think Cameron is trying to have his cake and eat it too. The character(s) are "wrong" and we shouldn't find it funny...(but hey it's kinda funny you gotta admit just a little bit amirite?)

      There's also the weird thing Cameron has with the military (Avatar also), the mix between fetishism/worship and liberal criticism.

      Overall though the movie is good and is a pretty big positive for women in film.

      FYI I would fund a Patreon for you ~$5 per article, ~$10-$15 per month if you ever wanted to go that route. If you did a Kickstarter for a physical book I'd pledge $50 for a preorder. Doubt you're interested but just throwing it out there.

    7. Thanks for the kind thoughts, but honestly, I think I'm done. And I've said that plenty of times before, but with this article in particular I think I've done what I wanted to do.

      What I wanted out of this blog was to provide people with a toolkit for thinking about fiction - about the way it affects them, consciously and subconsciously. The thing is, it's not really that "complicated", per se, it's just that people have been taught not to look at certain signs or to ignore certain tropes because "that's just how it is".

      Once you look at things head-on you're basically accomplishing my goals. Learn more about reality, and then apply that knowledge to fiction. Understand why there's a difference and what that implies.

      I've thought about writing a book or making a text adventure or something like that, although I really don't have the patience for it, and if I did something like that I'd certainly post on this blog to let people know. But apart from that I think I've accomplished what I wanted to do.

  4. Pretty good article and a very detailed in depth look at the bandwagon effect

    But something caught my eye

    "And even people who disagreed with the film's morals would go 'yeah, but it's a fun action movie. It's possible to acknowledge that a work is problematic without dismissing it entirely.' "

    I'm guessing this is a criticism of the whole "You can enjoy a work while still being critical of it's problematic elements" idea?

    1. I don't remember the exact article I wrote it in, but my view on that sort of idea is as follows:

      I think it's important to separate PRIMARY issues from ANCILLARY issues. A PRIMARY issue is "this movie is about justifying the murder of black people". An ANCILLARY issue is "this minor character is kind of racist".

      Every work of media is going to have some ancillary issues, which is why the whole "it's possible to acknowledge a work is problematic etc" statement exists: because if you want 100% purity, you can't really watch anything.

      But lots of people will use that rationale to justify liking works that are wholly built on awful principles, which, to me, doesn't fly. And I genuinely believe that if The Birth of a Nation was released today, there would be "SJWs" trying to defend it as a fun action flick regardless of its overtly racist themes (which would, of course, be "problematic").


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