The Power of Film

Films can have an enormous emotional impact on a viewer, swaying them emotionally in ways that their intellect would oppose. I was reminded of this recently when I watched two films from the silent era, Buster Keaton’s The General (1927) and D. W. Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation (1915). The latter was one of the earliest American feature films (the first being made in 1912) with the very first being made in Australia in 1906.

It was purely a coincidence that I happened to watch two films from the silent era so close to each other because the reasons were quite different. I had always wanted to see a Buster Keaton film because I had read that he was a pioneering genius of the silent film comedy genre. I watched Griffiths’ film as part of the College Scholars Program that I help teach.

Coincidentally, both films involved the Civil War and were told from a viewpoint that was sympathetic to the Confederacy. The first thing that struck me about both was how modern they were in the way they told their stories. They did have obvious signs of being old, such as the lack of sound and color and special effects, and poor quality film stock. But apart from these purely physical factors, the narrative structure was surprisingly familiar with flashbacks being the only modern feature of films that was missing.

Because of the lack of spoken dialogue, the actors had to exaggerate their gestures a little in order for the viewer to get a sense of their emotions and what they were saying, but apart from that, these were both films that kept the viewer engrossed in their respective stories. Despite the fact that the films had no spoken words (or because of it?), they were both fast-moving and kept the viewer engaged.

But there the similarities ended.

The General is a comedy in which the two warring sides were just a backdrop for a simple story of a train engineer (Buster Keaton) whose girl friend and train (named The General) were captured by the other side. The entire film dealt with the engineer’s foray into enemy territory to get them both back home.

This is not a political film. The entire film could have been done with the two sides interchanged and all that would have been necessary would have been to switch the army uniforms. The fact that it was the Civil War was also immaterial. Any two warring factions would have served equally well. In fact there was not a single black person in the whole film (at least as I recall). The fact that the engineer and girl were from the South was seemingly due to the idea for the film coming from an actual incident in the war. This film is worth watching, if only to see how well Keaton did all the stunts himself.

Birth of a Nation, on the other hand, is a very political film, determined to drive home a very specific message. I had heard of the film before and the comments were of two kinds: (1) that it was a landmark in the development of modern film; and (2) that it was terribly racist. After seeing the film, I have to agree with both judgments.

The film (which runs a little over three hours, surprisingly long for that period) consists really of two parts. The first part starts just prior to the Civil War and deals with events leading up to its end and Lincoln’s assassination. The second part deals with the period of Reconstruction in the south immediately afterwards.

The first part starts with an idyllic portrayal of life before the Civil War, with the stories of two large happy white families – one from the north, the other from the south – who are friends and visit one another, and the budding romances of one son and daughter from one family with son and daughter from the other. The war then pits the boys against each other in battle and produces deaths in each family.

This first part of the film is not too offensive and if the film had ended at this point there would not have been much controversy. The chief criticism that would have been leveled at it would have been the portrayal of all blacks as ‘happy slaves,’ either cheerfully loyal to their masters as house servants or happily working in the cotton fields and waving to the masters as they walk by. Lincoln is portrayed as a good man who did not want to seek vengeance in the South after the North’s victory.

But the second part is set entirely in the south and deals with the Reconstruction following Lincoln’s death. This is where the film’s highly disturbing treatment of race becomes manifest. This period is portrayed as a time when blacks took complete control of life in the South, shutting out white voters in elections and thus getting majorities in the legislatures. The southern whites are portrayed as a horribly oppressed people, being pushed aside by blacks in the streets and suffering various other indignities. The blacks are entirely caricatured, with white actors in blackface portraying them as lazy and drunken and evil, shuffle-dancing in the streets, lecherously leering at the demure white women, and always rubbing it in to the whites that they were now the bosses. Only the faithful house slaves stayed loyal to the whites, to the extent of rescuing them from black mobs at great peril to themselves.

The first part of the film, by showing scenes of these two loving, courteous families, with children playing and puppies and kittens frolicking, suffering the tragedies of their family members being killed in the war, etc., had already created sympathy for them in the minds of the viewer. The only black people who emerged as recognizable characters appeared in the second part, and were two-dimensional portrayals of evil so that the viewer had no sympathy for them at all.

But the real shocker is that the film portrays the creation of the Ku Klux Klan during the Reconstruction as a response by these decent, law-abiding whites to the lawlessness created by black rule. It is started by one of the family members we have already identified with, who is appalled by the breakdown of order and merely seeking to right wrongs. The KKK’s reign of terror is also not portrayed. Only one black person is shown being ‘tried’ and found guilty by the KKK and has his body later dumped at the home of the evil black leader. Instead the people of the KKK were protrayed like comic-book heroes, ‘respectable’ citizens who adopt secret identities to fight crime and injustice. Only in this case the costumes that hide their identities are the notorious white sheets.

There is no surer way of gaining an audience’s sympathy than setting up a scene in which a plucky little band of good people (including the elderly, women, children, and pets) heroically fight overwhelming odds against an evil and faceless enemy. This is a time-tested method of swaying the viewer’s sympathies and is a staple of cowboy films. Griffiths heavily exploits this towards the end of Birth of a Nation. So powerfully had the deck been emotionally stacked in favor of the white families that in the climactic scene, when the tiny group of white people is trapped in a small house and surrounded by a large number of advancing hostile black Union soldiers, I found myself rooting for their rescue, even though the rescue was going to be by the KKK.

The spell cast by Griffiths was broken whenever the scene cuts to show the KKK riding in to save this group because the sight of people covered in white sheets now has an overwhelmingly negative emotional impact. But one can imagine how in 1915, just fifty years after the Civil War ended, this film could be seen a huge propaganda coup for the KKK, showing them in an entirely positive light. Although the KKK had been dormant for some time, 1915 saw the second resurgence of this group and the timing of that had to have something to do with the release of this film.

The fact that Griffith was able to portray a group like the KKK in such a sympathetic light is a warning about the dangerous power that films can have in shaping attitudes and sympathies. It illustrates the importance of having people realize that films and other forms of video can never be taken as the only source of knowledge. We cannot avoid the hard work of reading about and around important events, both historical and contemporary, if we are to piece together a reasonably accurate understanding of events.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity returns

Mr. Deity is taken on a tour of hell by Lucifer.

For all the Mr. Deity clips, see here.

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