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Linguistic Propaganda in The Birth of a Nation

02/05/2012

D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is a masterpiece of racist propaganda.  It slowly and meticulously builds its story in such a way that you identify with the most hateful of American citizenry.  The core elements of propagandistic filmmaking are here, and they are groundbreaking.

The film is a brilliant example of linguistic cinema.  At every frame, there is no doubt what emotion is communicated.  Each image precisely distinguishes the heroes from the villains.  The great irony is that the movie’s heroes are history’s villains.  They are painted here as the victims of evil Carpetbaggers and their rising Black Empire.  Oh the poor white minority.

Aside from the overt racism, the film offers a very compelling example of how the edited assembly of shots can produce a given affect.  During one of the films most famous scenes, the Ku Klux Klan rides to the rescue of a family that holed up in a cabin while being attacked by an angry black mob.  The intercutting here is some of the first of its kind, and shows a marvelous understanding of the language of film.

We are shown the cabin in danger.  Our minds immediately empathize and begin to look for ways to help these people.  “Isn’t someone going to save them?” our collective subconscious cries out.  And then we are shown an image of the White Knights, riding on horseback, here to save the day.  From that point on, our imagination tries to fill in the rest of the scene.  Griffith juxtaposes shots of the family in danger with shots the Ku Klux Klan, giving us a deadline.  Now instead of asking, “who will save them?” we ask, “will they get there in time?”

This type of crosscutting is interactive for the audience.  Our imagination tries to complete the scene with the information given.  But as each new shot is laid before us, our imagined outcome changes to incorporate the new piece of information.  This essentially happens with all films everywhere, but was only in its early stages here.

The very principle of editing is based on knowing what the audience is anticipating.  In all story, the audience empathizes with the characters by projecting itself into them.  So if a film has a story (not all films do) then it will give certain pieces of information to the audience to make this projection as seamless as possible.  The sequencing of scenes, then, is all about continually providing the audience with new information.  The audience will live and breathe that information and allow it to transform their emotions during the film’s runtime.

The individual edits within a scene provide smaller pieces of information that the audience receives more subconsciously.  For instance, if a character says or does something offensive, we (the audience) naturally anticipate some character in the scene to represent our objection to the matter.  If no such character appears, the audience will feel devastated.  Thus, the rushing cavalry comes not only to save the poor family in the cabin, but also to save the audience.

This basic linguistic technique of cinema is used to put the audience in a position that is sympathetic to whites, and antagonistic toward blacks.  Griffith’s use of Intertitles that set the scenes in a (supposedly) historically accurate South, frame the audience’s opinion of the characters from the outset.  We have to hate the black people in the film, because that’s what the film tells us to feel.  What makes this an uncomfortable experience for the non-racist member of the audience, is that it fundamentally plunges our mental projection into a situation that we have no desire to be in.  It breaks the immersion that is necessary for empathy.  I do not want to be a racist.  But if I am to enjoy my experience with The Birth of a Nation, then I must, at least for the three-hour duration of the film, take on a racist worldview.

There is one scene in the film where the state congress has been taken over by the rising Black Empire, and they swiftly begin to abuse their power by oppressing the poor white minority.  Here the Black leaders are portrayed as being animal-like.  They rest their bare feet on the tables and eat KFC.  They are not presented with any positive attributes whatsoever.  Thus, Griffith destroys any possibility of the audience respecting the Black leaders.  We make judgments about the characters based on the information that we have been given, and in this case, the information is scathing.

Propaganda cannot work if it is fair and balanced.  In order for a normal non-racist audience to be in a position that we are comfortable with the Ku Klux Klan, there must be some villain that is considered worse than our image of the KKK.  In this movie, that villain is black people.

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