Monday, October 16, 2006

Sex Panic in Birth of a Nation

This weekend I had the unmitigated displeasure to watch that gem of the silent screen, Birth of a Nation (BoaN).

Just some background, BoaN was actually based on a best-selling novel by Thomas Dixon. The novel, The Clansman, was actually part of a trilogy of books that celebrated the South, while simultaneously promoting a new, nationalist consciousness. It was into this sea of American pride (pride that would oftentimes border on chauvanistic and xenophobic) that Birth of a Nation premiered. After all, the film's title suggests that a new consciousness, specifically one premised on white supremacy, was born after the Civil War.

BoaN was a huge success. From its premier in 1915 until 1937 (the year Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came out) it was the most profitable film of all time. And it was technically innovative, using dissolves, deep focus and jump-cuts.

But what was most salient to me while watching the film was its focus on white male sexual panic. Of course, the desire to protect white womanhood was a motivating factor in the formation of the Klan. However, I didn't think that a film from the early twentieth century would so nakedly (forgive the pun) deploy sexuality as a justification for black subjugation.

I was reminded of the films I had watched last semester for my Nazi Cinema class. The film Jud Suss (Jud Süß) comes to mind. Though that movie chronicles the manipulations and machinations of a Jewish adviser to a Duke, both films rely upon the idea that certain groups pose a threat to a woman's sexual purity.

Both reach their dramatic apex when a reviled character violates or attempts to violate an innocent white woman.

The motif of the dangerously sexual black male continues to exist. Indeed, one (white) man I interviewed this summer was very luridly obsessed with black sexuality. Interestingly, the motif of the Jewish male's sexual prowess seems to have died out completely.


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