Among the favorites to win the Oscar for Best Picture at Sunday's Academy Awards is the first silent movie to captivate audiences in many decades, The Artist. But it is another silent film, now just three years shy of its one hundredth birthday, that has the most to say to us about the present situation in the United States.
The "mulatto" is said to be a "traitor" who "plans to lead by an evil way to build himself a throne of vaulting power." These words that sound like they are lifted from a contemporary viral rightwing email warning about Barack Obama actually come from that nearly century-old cultural artifact that is essential to understanding the nation's current political climate. I have lost count of how many times I have sat through D.W. Griffith's 1915 cinematic masterpiece and historical monstrosity, The Birth of a Nation. It has long been my contention that one cannot properly understand the American past without seeing this film. But it was not until my most recent screening of the movie for students that I suddenly realized that it also the case that one cannot properly understand the American present without seeing this infamous racist epic.
What struck me was that this infamous film provides the key to explaining both the rise of the Tea Party and the totally irrational hatred that a substantial fraction of Americans holds for President Obama.
Griffith portrays black people as sub-human beings who are just fine as long as they accept and stay in their place of subjugation. The slaves on the South Carolina plantation that is the principal setting for the film's story are "faithful souls," eager to help their kindly masters. Enjoying the benefits of their enslavement, they abhor freedom as something they do not deserve and could not handle.
The radical racist mentality that had emerged in the 1880s and constitutes the foundation upon which The Birth of a Nation is constructed was, in the words of historian Joel Williamson, "the concept that Negroes, freed from the restraining influences of slavery, were rapidly 'retrogressing' toward their natural state of bestiality." In Griffith's film, they become "crazed negroes" who make "helpless whites" their "victims." Mammy, one of the faithful souls who appreciate what slavery does for them, sums up the filmmaker's view when she says, "Dem free-niggers f'um de N'of am sho' crazy."
That tells us a great deal about widespread attitudes a century ago, but surely we have come a very long way since then... haven't we?
Of course the racial views of the nation as a whole have progressed to a degree that would have been unimaginable in Woodrow Wilson's day. But as the surface waves have moved dramatically in one direction, there has been a growing undertow pulling back the other way, and that undertow has become very strong and dangerous since the election of President Obama.
In 2010, regressives who dominate the Texas State Board of Education directed that acceptable textbooks should talk about "the positive aspects of American slavery."
A few weeks ago, Tennessee Tea Party activists announced a push to have schools teach about slavery in a more positive light.
The self-styled "conservatives" on the Texas Board of Education also voted down a motion to require students to be taught about the terrorism brought about by the Ku Klux Klan and what they did to ethnic and racial minorities.
They apparently endorse and want to spread the view of the Klan presented in The Birth of a Nation, which is encapsulated in a quotation from President Wilson that is featured in one of the movie's titles: "The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation... until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country."
In Griffith's mythology, the Klan is an organization dedicated to justice and nonviolence. We are left with the impression that, had he been born a century earlier, Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been a Klan member.
Clearly, the right-wing activists in Texas and Tennessee could go a long way toward achieving their educational goals by making The Birth of a Nation their historical canon.
But the greater insight into the mentality that fuels the contemporary anti-Obama hysteria is to be found in the representation of the 1915 film's totally evil character, Silas Lynch, the mixed race "traitor" to both races who lusts for power.
The diabolical Lynch is said to be "happy at last to wreak vengeance" on the whites who formerly ruled. "Drunk with power," the malevolent mixed race leader proclaims: "I will build a Black Empire."
The 1915 representation of Silas Lynch differs hardly at all from the 2008-2012 right-wing depictions of Barack Obama: the evil, mixed race man intent on dominating white Christian people and setting up a black (or Muslim) empire over which he will rule.
The reason that Lynch is the absolutely evil character in the film is, of course, that he is a mulatto. The ultimate, horrifying threat that was said to come from removing the benevolent restraints of slavery was black males mating with white women. Griffith shows the black-controlled South Carolina Legislature passing "a bill, providing for the intermarriage of blacks and whites."
Following the passage of the intermarriage bill, the movie informs us, "The grim reaping begins." A black man named Gus, who has been swayed by "the vicious doctrines spread by the carpetbaggers," wants to marry a white girl, Flora. She has to learn "the stern lesson of honor" by leaping to her death. Gus is captured "that he may be given a fair trial in the dim halls of the Invisible Empire." The KKK's fair trial takes exactly 21 seconds to reach its verdict: "Guilty."
That's roughly the same span of time it took the Americans who formed the Tea Party to reach the same verdict on President Obama.
It is the realization that freedom for black men will result in them wanting to marry his own daughter that finally leads the Radical congressional leader Austin Stoneman (obviously meant to be Thaddeus Stevens) to see how wrong his doctrines have been. "I want to marry a white woman," Lynch tells Stoneman, who approves until his protégé informs him, "The lady I want to marry is your daughter." Suddenly perceiving the wrongness of his policy, Stoneman joins with Klansmen and viewers are told that "The former enemies of North and South are united again in common defence of their Aryan birthright."
Barack Obama is the sum of all the fears that were brought together in The Birth of a Nation -- and that persist in a sizable minority of white Americans. As late as 1954, those fears were expressed by someone as mainstream as President Dwight D. Eisenhower when he lobbied new Chief Justice Earl Warren before the Brown decision by saying to him of white segregationists, "these are not bad people; they just don't want their sweet little daughters to have to sit next to some big black buck."
Much as the fictional Silas Lynch was portrayed as even worse than black men because he was the product of interracial sex, Barack Obama is the worst nightmare of whites who still have the outlook Griffith presented cinematically a century ago. He is the result of a sweet little white daughter marrying a big black buck: Gus getting Flora. They see the election of such a person as the "Death of a Nation"--their nation.
Regressive Americans have in the past three years been, as Griffith put it in 1915, "forced to recognize the mulatto's position." They're mad as hell and they don't want to take it anymore.
Unwilling to accept the birth of a new multi-ethnic, "post-racial" American nation in which non-Hispanic whites will no longer be completely dominant -- the nation whose birth was represented in the election of Barack Obama -- elements of the old nation are making up, disseminating and believing ridiculous stories about President Obama and declaring that they want to get "him out of OUR white house" and "take back OUR nation."
It is their attempt to defend what Griffith termed "their Aryan birthright." Their objective is indeed to take the nation back -- back to the one presented on movie screens 1915.
A film on the Tea Party and anti-Obama propagandists could accurately be titled Re-Birth of a Nation.
Even in the event that the forces of regression win at the polls this November, though, the rebirth of the nation for which they long is not to be. While it can be argued that the birth of the new nation that Barack Obama reflects may have been a bit premature, with the 2008 economic collapse having induced an early labor, the inexorable forces of demography mean that the final death of D.W. Griffith's nation is certain.
Robert S. McElvaine is a history professor at Millsaps College. His most recent book is a 25th-anniversary edition of 'The Great Depression.' He is now writing, 'Oh, Freedom! -- The Young '60s.'