From American History to Hollywood Screening. Black Stereotypes in Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2014

16 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The Good African Americans
2.1 The Uncle Tom: A Loyal Slave
2.2 The Mammy: A Faithful Servant

3. The Evil Mulattos
3.1 Lydia Brown: The Jezebel
3.2 Silas Lynch: The Brutal Black Buck

4. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

The spectacular but controversial film The Birth of a Nation, written in 1915 and directed by a white supremacist D.W. Griffith, was “hailed as a picture without peer” and praised for being one of the most successful silent films by the audience of its time (Rylance 1). At the same time, however, it became the subject of a great dispute over its racial politics. Griffith, for example, partly denies critiques of racial implications in his film. Using black stereotypes in the Birth, his main purpose was to depict the historical reality of the American past. His aim was revealed in the following statement from the film: “This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and Reconstruction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people today” (1:28:13). Referring to the Jim Crow period, when blacks were subordinated and exploited, Griffith intended “partly to show the undeserved and unearned prosperity of blacks during Reconstruction” (Wallace 87). In other words, Griffith’s purpose was to emphasize the supremacy and restored rule of the whites in the antebellum South.

Many critics, however, argue that the Birth is a racial film which questions the reliability and racial fairness of its narrative content. For example, David Rylance emphasizes the ambiguity of historical events about the plight of African Americans in the film. In his view, the Birth is a representation of the truth of racial suppression of African Americans and a myth of “racial regeneration” in the Reconstruction era (Rylance 4). He sees the Birth as a “movie retelling the history of Reconstruction through narratives of white supremacy” and calls it “a very bit the racial epic” (Rylance 1). Similarly, Michelle Faith Wallace emphasizes the depicted racial inferiority of African Americans, which she sees as a stereotypical norm established in American culture and society. She calls the Birth “a masterpiece of the silent era yet widely viewed as anti-black propaganda” (Wallace 86). Her suggestion is that in the Birth, white and black attractiveness are seen from the perspective of the whites. In her view, the slanted presentation of the blacks in the film suggests that the whiteness was perceived as right and “racial ideal,” whereas the “blackness” was seen as culturally inferior (Wallace 88).

Other critics see the performance of the black characters in the Birth as racially distorted. For example, Goodwin Berquist and James Greenwood describe African Americans pictured in the film as “bestial, misguided, disrespectful, power-hungry or happy-go-lucky, docile, and loyal […]” (39). They also suggest that “[t]he film defames the Negro race” (Berquist and Greenwood 40). Both of them emphasize that African Americans faced difficulties of freedom after being emancipated and that the black race prejudices existed afterwards (cf. Berquist and Greenwood 41). Additionally, Donald Bogle points out that the blackface minstrelsy in the Birth implies the black inferiority and intensifies the sequence of racism (cf. 4). The performance of white actors in blackface in the film suggests the historical fact that blacks were given only the minor roles in American films (cf. Bogle 4). Bogle also recounts all black stereotypes such as the tom, the coon, the mammy, the tragic mulatto or jezebel and the brutal black buck played in blackface in the film. He emphasizes that all these characters were stock figures in the American film history calling them “the five basic types - the boxes sitting on the shelf” (Bogle 4). He points out that “[a]ll were character types used for the same effect: to entertain by stressing Negro inferiority” (Bogle 4). This paper analyzes the black stereotypes in The Birth of a Nation. In particular, it is concerned with the characters played in blackface such as the Uncle Tom, the Mammy, the Jezebel (Lydia Brown) and the Brutal Black Buck (Sylas Lynch). It will examine how these character types fit to the black stereotypes which existed since slavery and became popular in American life. Through an analysis of the characters, this paper will also reveal Griffith’s position toward racial justice and American identity.

2. The Good African Americans

2.1 The Uncle Tom: A Loyal Slave

The Uncle Tom in the Birth embodies many physical and character traits which are similar to that of a black slave. David Pilgrim, for example, precisely describes the appearance of the Tom figure that was created in the antebellum South:

The Tom is presented as a smiling, wide-eyed, dark skinned server: fieldworker, cook, butler, porter, or waiter […]. The Tom is often old, physically weak, psychologically dependent on whites for approval […]. He was shown stooped, often with a cane or stick (1).

The Uncle Tom in the Birth, a servant of the Cameron’s family, fits well into Pilgrim’s description of this character. In the film, the dark skinned Tom is an old man who has white eyebrows, falling eyes and a bald head. Being humpbacked, he limps and holds a stick. The appearance of the Uncle Tom is similar to that of a black slave, who in the antebellum era was thought to be physically unattractive and born only to serve the whites.

The behavior of the Uncle Tom also reminds us of a black slave, who during slavery was believed to be meek and humble, because he never complained or rebelled. Pilgrim, for example, explains some reasons why black slaves were believed to be docile. He says, “The violence inherent in slavery was understated. In some instances the brutality was ignored completely. Slaves were depicted as ‘happy darkies’ living under a benevolent, paternalistic system” (Pilgrim 1). In other words, in the antebellum South, black slaves were imagined to be childlike, dependent on their master, and needed paternal protection. The Uncle Tom in the Birth embodies this commonly known image of a black slave due to the similar behavior. Although being freed from slavery, the Uncle Tom is depicted as docile and passive. He seems to be fragile and incapable of fighting. He is also represented as being non-rebellious and non-threatening to the whites. The Uncle Tom is seemingly unable to cope with freedom, to adjust to social norms, and is thus dependent on his white master Cameron.

The Uncle Tom in the Birth also belongs to the community of slaves and reveals it when dancing with black slaves. There is a scene in the film, in which the Uncle Tom shares his pleasures with other slaves in the plantation, a place that was a part of a slave life in the antebellum South. During the quarters, the Uncle Tom is dancing together with black slaves from the cotton field and amuses Stoneman’s family. Historically, the quarters were thought to be an inseparable part of slave culture, a time when slaves got the hours of joy, hope, and escape from the monotony of daily life and spiritually freed from sufferings. John Blassingame explains the benefits of quarters for the blacks, “The social organization of the quarters was the slave’s primary environment which gave him his ethical rules and fostered cooperation, mutual assistance, and black solidarity” (41). Moreover, the slave dance represents an act of cultural resistance against slavery and remains a cultural part of African survival. Blassingame explains the meaning of a slave dance more precisely:

In the quarters the dance was more often a test of physical endurance, a means of winning praise and expressing the slave’s inner feelings […]. The unrestrained exhibitions gave the slave some escape, some temporary relaxation from toil and refreshed his spirit (44f).

Here the act of dancing, which is one of the important aspects of African slave culture, symbolically reveals the Uncle Tom’s inseparability from the slave community. It also signifies his resistance to slavery which he expresses culturally.

The most significant scene that identifies the Uncle Tom with a black slave is his penalty for refusing to cast his vote. For example, the subtitle in the Birth suggests, “[e]ven when he [Cameron] talks, their own faithful family servant is punished for not voting with the Union League and Carpetbaggers” (1:51:50). In this scene, the Uncle Tom is being punished in response to disobedience. When his hands were tied up high around the tree, the kidnapped Uncle Tom was violently beaten by the black Union soldiers. At this point, the Uncle Tom is being treated as a black slave who was regarded as inferior member of society and disrespected. Blassingame explains precisely the harsh and inhuman treatment of black slaves in antebellum America: “On numerous occasions, planters branded, stabbed, tarred and feathered, burned, shackled, tortured, maimed, crippled, mutilated, and castrated their slaves” (163f). Thus, in this scene the mistreated Uncle Tom reminds us of a black slave who suffered physical abuse for disobedience.

Being dependable on whites for his acknowledgment, the Uncle Tom, as a black slave did, is completely devoted and attached to his master Cameron. Bogle, for example, summarizes the depiction of the Tom figures in American films:

Always as toms are chased, harassed, hounded, flogged, enslaved, and insulted, they keep the faith, n’er turn against their white massas, and remain hearty , submissive, stoic, generous, selfless, and oh-so-very kind. Thus they endear themselves to white audiences and emerge as heroes of sorts (4f).

The Uncle Tom in the Birth perfectly fits into Bogle’s description of the stereotypical Tom role. Well-mannered and good-natured Tom seems to be contented with his role of a faithful servant. Freed from slavery, he seems to be enjoying the benefits of master and slave relationship. Blassingame explains the submissive behavior of a black slave thus:

Because of the continual surveillance, these slaves had to go through the ritual of deference so often that they frequently internalized the submissive role. Often the master and slave lived and worked together on such intimate terms that they developed affection for each other, and the slave identified completely with his master. Even if the slave initially had no affection for his master, the uninterrupted surveillance led so often to swift punishment for the smallest deviation from the submissive role that the domestic servant became extremely deferential and obsequious (200).

The Uncle Tom in the Birth represents a typical slave figure, which is childlike, docile and eager to serve. For example, he is present in all occasions of the Cameron family and reveals his sympathy for them. Together with all family members, he regrettably sends off Cameron brothers for the front waving with a white handkerchief. He even goes so far as to take active actions during the Civil War, for example when the blacks attack the Cameron’s home, he attempts to protect them. He also grieves the death of the little sister with great sorrow. In this respect, Griffith calls him “the faithful soul” (1:53:11). The faithful and obedient Uncle Tom seemingly enjoys his life of the loyal servant.

Gentle and lighthearted, Uncle Tom also plays the role of a virtuous man, who is willing to sacrifice for his master, as would have a black slave. For example, there is a scene in the Birth, in which the Uncle Tom and the Mammy leave home in search of their Cameron master. The Uncle Tom finds his master in the town and then pretends to joke at him in order to delude the black mockers. The Uncle Tom says laughing: “Is I yo equal, cap’n, jes like any white man?” (2:30:07). His statement is ironic because as a typical slave, the Uncle Tom believes in his inferiority and white supremacy. Blassingame explains the belief of black slaves in superiority of his white master: “The idea of the superiority of whites was etched into the slave’s consciousness by the lash and the ritual respect he was forced to give to every white man” (199). The Uncle Tom proves his loyalty and supporting role for his master when he strikes the black soldiers and rescues Cameron, leading him to the cart. In this scene, the Uncle Tom represents a black slave who is ready to sacrifice his life for his white master.

Moreover, similarly to a black slave, the Uncle Tom in the Birth represents a one-dimensional personality type. As Pilgrim puts it: “The Tom role, like most of the early black stereotypes, suggested that blacks were one-dimensional”(1). The Uncle Tom fits well into the black stereotype for his personal and monotonous qualities such as modesty, friendliness and willingness to sacrifice. In contrast to being a multidimensional type, he lacks such traits as disobedience, unhappiness and violence. Pilgrim, for example, explains the meaning of Tom figures in the past:

Toms symbolized wealth. Producers who wanted to show that a family had "old money" often surrounded the family with black servants. Toms also suggested a nostalgic social order. Toms represented the supposed "good ol' days" before the civil rights and black power movements (1).

Thus, the Uncle Tom embodies the image of a loyal slave and submissive black servant in the American South.


Excerpt out of 16 pages


From American History to Hollywood Screening. Black Stereotypes in Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation"
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
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ISBN (Book)
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Griffith, Black Stereotypes, Hollywood
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Alina Müller (Author), 2014, From American History to Hollywood Screening. Black Stereotypes in Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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