Birth of A Nation: Art or Propaganda


Mankind, engaging in war, driven by whatever instincts guide him, seeks
to keep the defeats and victories of battle in his memory and on his conscience.
To accomplish this men have used paint and canvas, ink and paper, or instrument
and song in their effort to communicate the tragedy and glory of war. Never,
before the career of D.W. Griffith had anyone attempted to bring the subject to
film. The result of his efforts, weaknesses aside, mark a change in attitude
towards film as a media. Perhaps audiences previously going to a picture
expected emotional manipulation. After all, years before the film Birth of a
nation, makers of film employed techniques to evoke pathos from viewers; whether
through the use of a sobbing mother, a frightened child or what have you. In
this respect the film was not a ground-breaker; However, through its effective
use of devices such as symbolism, foreshadowing and allusions, as well as
building on and arguably perfecting film techniques such as continuity editing,
intercutting and close-ups, he transformed film from mere entertainment to art
and propaganda.

To present and explore a theme, symbolism is used everywhere in
literature. Whether the image is subtle or obvious it is regardless a sign of
considerable calculation and effort. In Birth of a nation Griffith places
symbols everywhere, in doing this he merges literary devices of written works
with his own visual works. For instance, the parched corn symbol in the scene
where the southern army is eating symbolizes their desperation in the face of
defeat. This imagery proves that Griffith wasn\'t just presenting actors and a
plot, he intended to dig far deeper than that, into the realm of a clever
storyteller.

Another example of his unique style is the use of foreshadowing, another
literary device now commonly employed in film. The most prominent example of
this is the scene where two gentlemen are talking, and as the camera pans down,
we see a puppy struggling with a kitten. This is another strong example of
symbolism; however, even more importantly it foreshadows the coming war. It is
expertly placed to add to the building tension between sides which the audience
already knows results in confrontation. Its placement reflects Griffiths desire
to advance the complexity and diversity of film beyond entertainment to higher
levels in society.

To manipulate his audience\'s emotions, he first had to draw them into
the story and in turn into the stories underlying theme. He accomplished this
by using numerous virgin film tools, much as an artist uses his own tools to
create a believable painting. Among these tools he uses panoramas to illustrate
setting, to paint, if you will - a moving picture. To show the swell of heated
gunfire on a crowded battlefield i.e.the scene of the battle of Petersburg, or
to bring across image of the delicate beauty of his native southern land to
those who had never been there or seen a picture of it. This was the substance
that transformed film into a genuine art form.

Once he had the attention and anticipation of the audience, as well as
their almost guaranteed acceptance of his word, he merely had to feed them a
easily grasped, recognizable message to sway their emotions his way. This
method of classic propaganda was used to fuel the audience\'s already
considerable ill-founded hatred of blacks. It comes in the form of a rebel
black group who terrorizes the Cameron family, the film\'s main characters. By
placing blacks in this position it isn\'t difficult to imagine the reaction of an
average theatre goer. The film spawned riots, fired up racism, built stronger
the negative stereotypes of blacks. It portrayed them as lazy, as illustrated
in the black parliament, where a man rests his bare feet on a desk, alluding to
uselessness in the employment environment. More horrifyingly than that it
portrayed them as ultimately evil with the seizing of the Cameron\'s home and the
attempted rape of one of their daughters. The obvious bias presented, although
appalling, demonstrates just how effective Griffith was at utilizing film not
with the intention to merely entertain, but to spread propaganda and affect the
perceptions of society itself.

Griffith exploited his audience, he turned them against minorities and
themselves. The film Birth of a nation exemplifies ignorance and hate at its
worst. Although it stands for something that today is looked on as morally
wrong, it proves by this very reaction that the film is not just mere
entertainment, but something with a far more serious purpose. Since Griffith
was the first to accomplish something of this nature, Birth