Birth of a Nation
is primarily useful in apprehending the fashion in which the South
constructed its cultural myths
. As W.J. Cash
has noted, the inaccuracy of the South
's self-created identity
in no way diminished its effect on the South
Most notably, Birth of a Nation evinces the bizarre intersection of racism and gender anxiety in the South. Lillian Smith, in Killers of the Dream, noted that slaveholders were often inclined to enjoy the "psychosexual vigor" of the slave women, and though the stereotyping of blacks as more organic and physically charged than whites is problematic, such was the perception of whites at the time (p. 117). The slave owner would then feel extremely guilty around his wife, and consequently elevated her onto a pedestal of ideal virtue and purity, and this was the source of the myth of the Southern woman, for the sake of whom all manner of racist and politically reactionary violence were ostensibly enacted.
W.J. Cash believed that white males thus came to (1) equate the Southern woman with the South as a threatened but noble culture, worth killing for, and also to (2) project their own sins onto the black male, whom they suspected of great sexual acumen and a tendency to rape white women. That statistics indicate a very low incidence of black men raping white women was irrelevant: in the gender-skewed and racist Reconstruction period, white men felt guilty and frightened, anxious and hateful.
Birth of a Nation demonstrates many of these moronic stereotypes without irony. A recently freed black man, provoked by a Yankee carpetbagger, attempts to rape the noble, pure white sister of the protagonist; virtuously preferring death over dishonor, she leaps off of a cliff and dies, at which point her brother, moved apparently by duty and honor, forms the Ku Klux Klan to protect the symbol of the South: the Southern Belle.
Idiotic though it is, the movie's un-ironic depiction of these myths and narrative archetypes is fascinating in its transparency. Presented are the unmitigated fears and hysterical, sentimental neuroses of the turn-of-the-century South.