Sunday, February 15, 2009

African-American Folklore in Film (Part 1)

I took a class on Folklore and Film. It was one of those classes that one is just thrilled to find will work toward needed credits. Once a week I got to watch interesting films and then discuss them (the class just met once a week). My homework was to watch movies of my choice. The only real assignment was to select a topic and explore films dealing with that topic and then write a paper about it. Don't you love college!?

And so I present to you some excerpts from my paper:

African-American folklore has been portrayed in many films. Often the way this folklore has been represented reflects the sentiment of the public at the time the film was made. As films were first made in America, segregation was the law of the land, black codes ruled the south, lynchings were frequent, and white supremacist groups terrorized blacks without much restriction. With the progress of civil rights came a change in public opinion. As public opinion regarding blacks changed, so did Hollywood's treatment of black subjects.

Birth of a Nation
In 1915 the film industry was in its infancy. Sound and color were still years away. The craft of film making had just been born. During this time, segregation was not only legal in the southern states, but it was also spreading to both the North and the West. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill legally segregating the armed forces. The Ku Klux Klan was at its height in the years from 1915 to 1925. Treatment of blacks was at its worst point since emancipation.

In the midst of this terrible era of racism and violence, director D.W. Griffith created The Birth of a Nation. Representative of the deep racism, hatred, and fear of blacks that existed at the time, The Birth of a Nation treated blacks with complete disdain and horror. Its message was that the Civil War was an unnecessary war brought about by northern radicals. In the film the freed slaves became either helpless or manipulative. The KKK became "the organization that saved the South from anarchy." Blacks were animals to be feared and tamed. Black men were portrayed as vile and a threat to the virtue of all white women and indeed, the entire white race.

After seeing a screening of this movie, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that he found it interesting and entertaining. In spite of its obvious bias, The Birth of Nation is still heralded as an exceptional movie. Griffith's use of camera angles, shots, and scenes, were unique and very effective. He assembled a large cast with hundreds of extras. The story flows smoothly. The use of pantomime and written narrative work well together. In 1998 it was listed as #44 in the AFI list of the Top 100 Movies of all time. It not only reflected the extreme racism that existed in the early 20th Century, it embraced and perpetuated it.

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