Let us examine W.D. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation (1915): one of the racist movies of all time, as well as one of the biggest money makers in film history. Birth of A Nation was the slavery ideal come to life, and two families: the Cameron and the Stoneman were pivotal to its plot.
“Dr. Cameron and his sons are gently benevolent ‘fathers’ to their childlike servants. The servants themselves could be no happier. In the fields they contentedly pick cotton. In the quarters they dance and sing for their master. In the big house Mammy joyously goes about her chores. All is in order. Everyone knows his place. Then the civil war breaks out and the old order cracks.” (Danny Bogel Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films 1973 p.12)
The war years are terrible! In the South there is [title card/Birth of a Nation]: “ruin, devastation, rapine and pillage!” Lions, and tigers and bears –oh my! Reconstruction begins and now a band of uppity Northern darkies and low life Yankee carpetbaggers enter the picture.
They corrupt the former slaves — who then turn on their good and loving masters. Who will save the South?
Into this conflict, Griffith introduced Lillian Gish: as “Flora Cameron” as one of the first — if not the first Silver Screen virgins. As Flora Cameroon, Gish played a frail, blond teenager menaced by Griffith’s next creation: “Gus,” the “brutal, Black buck.” Gus was the Southern nightmare of the Black rapist come to life.
Of course, according to Southern mythology, the only reason Black men wanted freedom was so they could rape White women — picking cotton 16 hours (and without pay) had nothing to do with it. Cast beside Gus, Flora became an icon: a blond symbol of virginity.
At the other end of the purity spectrum stood “Austin Stoneman:” abolitionist and all around bad guy. What’s more he has a Black mistress: “Lydia Brown!” Stoneman’s character was actually patterned to resemble Thaddeus Stevens, a true to life antislavery congressional leader and is he’s thus depicted as: the leader who would force the South to grant blacks equal rights.
Lydia as both his housekeeper and mistress is described as the “the weakness that is to blight a nation” (Leab, 1975 P.27). Too Black to pass for White, yet too White to live among her own kind, Lydia is the classic tragic mulatto and a powerful symbol.
She is the femme fatale: the archetypal bitch who leaves death and destruction in her wake. Notice, readers if you will, her “male” characteristics: she is power hungry, aggressive and refuses to humble herself before White males.
Throughout Birth of a Nationshe anguishes over her predicament as a Black woman in a hostile white world (Bogle, 1973; p.14).
And Lydia is (drum roll if you please) sexual. No greater sin hath any woman. In fact, she is Birth of Nation’s only passionate woman. Thus the myth of passion and sexuality as evil, as Original Sin, and of woman as its bearer was recreated on the Silver Screen.
…[Austin] determined to bring the South to its knees after its defeat is momentarily trapped by her Lydia’s animalistic vibes… [She] “is his one weakness and the cause of his downfall (Bowser, p. 44)
Juxtaposed between two polarities of Black and White stood Mammy: the asexual, Aunt Tomasina fiercely devoted to preserving the status quo. Griffith ever the demonic genius added another element to the Mammy configuration: Sapphire, a creature one part Mammy, one part Amazon; the Black woman who is an shrew in her relationship with Black men, the mythic ball buster and castrator of the Black male.
Sapphire would become a full blown myth during the 1930s (Amos and Andy) to be reborn as the Black Matriarch of the 1960s. Whatever else Griffith was, he was a trend setter, and the molds he cast dominated the Silver Screen for decades to come. For example in his portrayal of Mammy as dark skinned, he set the stage for the typecasting of darker Black women as unattractive well into the Civil Rights era.
A dark black actress was considered for no role but that of a mammy or aunt jemima. On the other hand, the part-black woman — the light skinned Negress — was given a chance at lead parts and graced with a modicum of sex appeal…In fact it was said in 1958 and 1970 that the reason why such actresses as Eartha Kitt in Anna Lucasta and Lola Falana in The Liberation of L.B. Jones failed to emerge as important screen love goddess was that they were too dark (Bogle, 1973; p.15).
Copyright Valjeanne Jeffers 1997, 2009, 2012 all rights reserved
Excerpts from The Story of Eve have been published in PurpleMag 2010