This is an excerpt from my novel, The Noise of Endless Wars. To set some background for the scene: the character, known as E.Z., has recently left prison and started a new life with hopes of going to college. He has developed an interest in film and has read up on its history:
Recently he had sat down to watch The Birth of a Nation. He had read about the film in a book about African American portrayal in cinematic history. When he had first read about the film, it sounded like one of the worst movies ever made, but when he read about it in the movie guides, he had been shocked to see rave reviews calling it a “breakthrough in cinematic history” and the film "that changed movie-making forever". He mulled over the words in the brief paragraph that had a slight mention of the racism in the film. Instead, the critic discussed the unprecedented use of cutting between two scenes to heighten the drama and action, along with the epic scale of the production.
The library did own a copy of the film, and even though E.Z. had watched very few silent films in his lifetime (he did sit down with his grandfather to watch a few Charlie Chaplin movies, but that had been twenty years earlier), he decided to check it out and watch it in his spare time.
Impressed with its epic grandeur and its ability to convey powerful imaginary to evoke emotion without a spoken word, he cringed as he watched white men in blackface play up the grossest stereotypes. Surprisingly he laughed at the appearance of the mulatto—something he did trying to cope with the onrush combination of obscenity and absurdity. Did people view him as a half-breed threat like Silas Lynch (why would you name a character such in a movie like that???), whose miscegenation lead him to be the most dangerous villain featured in the film? The negro beast with the spark of white intelligence—the monster that should never have been created? The more he thought about it the less he laughed.
The truly horrifying aspect of the film was that the majority of whites had believed in their own supremacy and that an entire race, or races of people, were naturally inferior. The film even quoted then President Woodrow Wilson asserting this exact point.
He had to admit after watching it that it did answer a lot of his questions about American history and thus he found it as insightful as it was offensive. The people of those days, both in the North and South had succeeded in forming a worldview that justified their atrocities and acts of terrorism against a race of people. Of all the feelings he thought he would encounter during and after watching the film, enlightenment had not been one of them.
The film did have some accuracy: white southerners did react to the burgeoning power of Negros by forming the Ku Klux Klan and lynching blacks. Unfortunately, the film unabashedly celebrated this bit of history as a reaffirmation of the traditional southern hierarchy. This powerful box office smash of a film came from an established archetype of restoration prevalent all through Western civilization. The Klan were the original superheroes, and why not? They embodied the hero who rises from tragedy or nothing to become the savior of all humanity (white humanity at least). Also they wore masks for the sake of anonymity and therefore remained mild-mannered citizens by day. When night came, they were the masked avengers, seeking out justice for the honor of white women everywhere.
Membership in the Klan even reached an all-time high as men and even women saw it as a social club with which to belong and celebrate protestant values, while at the same battling the existential threat of outsiders (in some cases Catholics took the place of blacks). Interest began to decline as the violent nature of the core group of klansman frightened and dissuaded people enough to later renounced all ties to the group.
Owing to this archetype, the director had been blind to everything else. There couldn’t be a more racist film and yet DW Griffith had been completely and sincerely shocked at the accusations of racism. He had thought his rendition of the bestselling novel, The Klansman, had been an accurate portrayal of Southern life, which he had learned from recollections of his relatives who regaled him with stories of The Old South and its traditions.
As he became more engrossed in the film and its history, E.Z. had a shocking epiphany: through these hundreds of years of history white people had been victims themselves! They had been lied to about their near-godlike dominance of their race over the other races they believed to come under their dominion. Viewing it as such he felt compassion and understanding, but he still shook his head in dismay at the absurdity of four hundred years of prejudice and hatred due to skin pigmentation.
****A lot of what I wrote reiterates some points from my previous post, but I wanted to try to capture the experience of a biracial man who identifies himself as an African American (I happen to be a Caucasian, btw). Keep in mind that this is a single page from a 350 page novel that I hope to one day publish.
Anyway, I hope this adds something to the discussion of race.
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