The 13th

Films about Race: The Use of The Birth of a Nation in The 13th


I recently watched a film on Netflix that made me appreciate the very real power of historical objects.


The 13th is a documentary about the subjugation of black people in America – from slavery, to Jim Crow, to modern mass incarceration. It’s very moving and very well done. The narrators of the film, who are historians and black history experts, tell a story of black oppression in America that persists over time, taking different forms to suit the era. While there is an overwhelming urge on the part of (white) society to want to move on and forget history, we can’t. History is always with us. The film argues that the systemic racism of the criminal justice system that exists today is the modern incarnation of racist oppression; to ignore this is to allow the injustice to continue.


The documentary makes the point that racist stereotypes and imagery support myths of racial inequality, specifically the myth of the black man as criminal. As proof of this, the film includes extensive clips from The Birth of a Nation (1915). This film about the Ku Klux Klan was extremely popular in its time, breaking new ground in cinematic techniques and earning the honour of being first film screened at the white house (to the White House’s dishounour). Today, watching it is all kinds of awful. Clips from the film featured in The 13th show caricature-like blackface villains, KKK rallies, burning crosses, and a lynching.


image of Klan violence from The Birth of a Nation


The imagery is shocking. So shocking, in fact, that I wouldn’t be surprised if a few eyebrows were raised when in 1992 it was included in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. The essays included along with the record for this film show that it was chosen for its non-racial content – “underneath the distasteful sentiment lies visual genius” – but in 1992 this film must have seemed a dusty old relic of a racist past. Surely there were people who questioned why it should be preserved. Isn’t it embarrassing, un-American, atrocious?


Of course, its inclusion in this one archive is mostly symbolic: it’s not like they kept the final copy from destruction. But, what it is symbolic of is that this film hasn’t been swept under the rug. That’s important, because it’s used so well in The 13th. it shows racist sentiment far more openly than we typically see it today. It’s as ugly as can be. We need to see this if we’re going to understand the cultural legacy of the slave trade, and the types of imagery that persist even now. After you watch the leering blackface rapist shown in The Birth of a Nation, it’s easier to understand why it’s a problem to see a hugely disproportionate number of arrests of black men on the news. After you see footage of glorified racial violence from a hundred years ago, it really brings home the continuity of abuse when you see images of civil rights protesters getting hosed.


Hate propaganda of such significance as The Birth of a Nation belongs in an archive. Even if we want to veer away from something so offensive, we shouldn’t, not when it can be repurposed and used to argue against the very stereotypes it promotes. We need access to works like this so that we can prove their inadequacy.


As a librarian and not an archivist, I am normally more interested in more current resources, the sorts of things that people need now. This is one instance where I’m totally convinced of the power of preservation.


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