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of a Nation (1915)
Birth of a Nation was the most popular film of the silent era.
Its innovative technique made it the most important silent film
ever produced. But the film also provided historical justification
for segregation and disfranchisement. The message embedded in
the film was that Reconstruction was an unmitigated disaster,
that African Americans could never be integrated into white society
as equals, and that the violent actions of the Ku Klux Klan were
justified because they were necessary to reestablish legitimate
and honest government.
D.W. Griffith dramatized these themes by focusing on the intertwined
stories lives of two families: the Stonemans and the Camerons.
Austin Stoneman is modeled on Thaddeus Stevens, the Republican
congressman who advocated a radical transfer of political power
to the freedmen. The Camerons were a humane and cultured South
Carolina family with a firebrand son. The film concludes with
the rescue of the Camerons and Stonemans by the KKK and the impending
marriage of Elsie Stoneman to young Cameron symbolizes the reunion
of North and South.
convey an impression of historical accuracy, Griffith incorporated
cinematic replicas of famous historical scenes, such as the assassination
of Abraham Lincoln. He also filled the film with anti-black incidents;
arrogant freedmen pushing whites off sidewalks, preaching marriage
between the races, and killing blacks who remained loyal to their
masters. The film's characters are stereotypes: loyal house servants;
deluded and ignorant field hands; arrogant mulattoes lusting after
Southern white women; and the Ku Klux Klan made up of gallant
of a Nation helped to justify the denial of civil rights to African
Americans. The turn of the century witnessed the nadir of race
relations in the Untied States. Lynching was widespread. Race
riots directed against African Americans took place in many cities.
African Americans in the South were relegated to separate schools,
hotels, and restaurants and were denied the right to vote.
With the Wind (1939)
With the Wind was the costliest and most popular film of Hollywood's
Golden Era. Producer David Selznick had promised that the film
would be "absolutely free of any anti-Negro propaganda.
But the film presented, in the words of one critic, "a reassuring
portrayal of antebellum gentility, racial harmony, and black docility."
Although it did not use white actors in blackface, like Birth
of a Nation, its depiction of enslaved African Americans as loyal
but scatter-brained house servants and cowering, clumsy field
hands conformed to earlier stereotypes.
offers a poignant and powerful retelling of the story of the one
of the first black regiment during the Civil War, the 54th Massachusetts
Volunteer Infantry, from its founding to its assault on Confederate
Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina, on July 18, 1863. Half
the regiment's men were killed or wounded in the assault, but
it dramatically demonstrated the courage of African American troops
film's weaknesses are that it relies heavily on fictional characters
and fails to describe the larger historical context. It does not
adequately describe Lincoln's gradual shift from conceiving of
the Civil War as a war to preserve the Union into a war to end
slavery. Nor does it adequately mention the North's victories
in early July at Gettysburg and Vicksburg or the anti-draft riots
in New York. Just three days before the assault on Fort Wagner,
anti-draft rioters in New York had beaten to death a nephew of
one of the 54th's sergeants, Robert Simmons.
1839, a group of Africans were captured in Sierra Leone and shipped
to the Spanish colony of Cuba. Even though Spain had signed a
treaty prohibiting the international slave trade, it allowed the
trade into its booming sugar colony. During the voyage across
the Atlantic, one third of the slaves died. During trans-shipment
from Havana to nearby sugar plantations, 53 slaves broke free
of their shackles and overpowered the crew. The captives then
ordered the two men who had purchased them to navigate the ship
toward Africa. At night, however, the men sailed the ship northward
and westward. An American naval vessel ultimately seized the ship
in Long Island Sound.
Africans would have been returned to Cuba had abolitionists not
publicized their cause. The case ultimately went to the Supreme
Court, where John Quincy Adams argued that they had been illegally
held captive in violation of international law. In 1841, the Court
freed the captives.
history, the Steven Spielberg film is severely flawed. It portrays
the abolitionists as religious fanatics; treats Josiah Gibbs,
the Yale College professor who learned Mende and translated the
captives words as a joke; and it invents a fictitious African
American abolitionist Theodore Joadson (when it could have depicted
real-life figure, the Reverend J.C. Pennington. The film also
ignores the racial prejudice in New Haven, where plans for a vocational
college for African American students had been quashed a few years
earlier; and misrepresents the abolitionists' role in supporting
the trial. Above all, the film fails to focus sufficiently on
the captives themselves.
his novella Benito Cereno, Herman Melville offers searching philosophical
reflections on an incident very similar to the Amistad case.
January 27, 1856, 22-year-old Margaret Garner, her husband Robert,
his parents, and her four young children attempted to escape from
a northern Kentucky plantation into neighboring Cincinnati. Surrounded
by trackers and on the verge of certain capture, the pregnant
Margaret slit the throat of her two-year-old daughter Mary. She
said that she had intended to kill her other children rather than
see them returned to slavery. She later explained that she wanted
to "end their sufferings" rather than see them returned
to bondage and "murdered by piecemeal." Margaret's owner
may have been the father of at least her two youngest children,
including the one she killed.
chilling story served as the historical basis for Toni Morrison's
Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved and the Oprah Winfrey-Jonathan
Demme film, which examines the physical and psychological scars
inflicted by slavery. No other work has so powerfully examined
the interior life of a former slave.
Garner's real-life story is described in Steven Weisenburger's
Modern Medea (1998). Unlike Morrison's fictional character, who
ends her life as a free woman, Margaret Garner died of typhoid