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The Birth of a Nation and a Slap Heard Around the World

March 29, 2022
Will Smith (R) hits Chris Rock as Rock spoke on stage during the 94th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 27, 2022. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

I only meant to watch scenes from The Birth of a Nation for a research project I’m doing, but then I ended up watching (while multi-tasking) all three and half hours. Buckle up, this review is all over the place but mostly rooted in the conversation around Will Smith slapping Chris Rock. 

Everyone wants to be invited to the cookout but don’t want the realeness that comes with it. That is the theme of white America’s fascination, imitation, and deprecation of Black culture. There isn’t often a moment in our history when white America steps back and recognizes that Black people are not a monolith, that we operate differently as individuals and as a culture. We’re expressive, we’re vocal, we’re physical. Compound that with centuries of oppression, personal trauma, an ever-present judgmental gaze, digs at your personal life, and the stress of just living… and all of that makes a slap among two grown men seem like not that big of a deal. The reason there is such a reactionary cultural and classist divide around the Will Smith situation is exactly what watching The Birth of a Nation reminded me. Our worldview has always been through a narrow, white lens that filters Black people (and minorities in general but for the sake of this argument I’ll stick with Black) and our behavior through the confines of whiteness. Now society must reckon with the meaning of that and how to move forward. 

There’s inherited anger, fear, and a sense of betrayal that whiteness expresses when Black people walk into what is considered historically white institutions but do things “our way” (e.g. slapping someone because of disrespect at the Oscars or, in this film’s case, eating chicken in the White House). There has never been a widespread conversation or reflection on how cultures operate, integrate, and make do with scraps in white-dominated America; no reflection on how high-functioning Black people have to be in order to succeed in American society. We’re meant to assimilate, dress acceptably, act the part, and not complain. We’re still being coerced into suppressing parts of our cultural identity and our urges because those urges have been deemed “uncivilized.” From a Black viewpoint, Smith’s slap was a shock but also felt like a fitting bookend to the blackest Oscars in history: Produced by a Black man, kicked-off by Beyoncé, hosted by two Black women, then ending in a Black man winning an award in tears after slapping someone half an hour earlier. 

In retrospect, the 2022 Oscars felt like being at a family cookout or any Black family function, where everyone’s having fun and drinking and laughing until that one cousin or uncle says something that triggers another cousin or uncle and now someone’s ass has to get beaten to defend their honor. It’s both learned and instinctive social behavior, but because Eurocentric thinking dominates our culture, Black people have to pretend otherwise and thus fit the mold that white society has deemed civilized for us. A cabinet of Blacks eating chicken is deemed far worse than the real-life brawls and corruption that’s happened in the White House under white rule over the past few centuries. But the former is unacceptable for D.W. Griffith, Thomas Dixon, and white America, those that wanted to “secure their privileges” in a society that was opening up to progressivism and equity. Griffith’s film presents the belief that whiteness should be the one that dictates how to eat and what to eat and what is refined, what is acceptable, when, where, and how. After all, whiteness is civil and anything else is unacceptable. 

It feels reductive to say that Will shouldn’t haven’t slapped Chris Rock. I even initially kept thinking how embarrassing the whole thing was. But it’s only embarrassing because I was interpreting the situation from a white perspective: How embarrassing that this happened in front of all these white folks. The Birth of a Nation drives home the reality that we exist under the gaze of whiteness and therefore that dictates how we must behave to be seen as dignified and “welcomed.” Griffth shows this multiple times by using white actors in blackface for his main characters. 

Rewatching The Birth of a Nation has been a mindfuck. On one hand, as a passionate devotee to the art of cinema and its history, this over a century-old movie does things that modern movies simply don’t. I wonder if that’s because Griffith’s techniques have just been overlooked/forgotten or because modern filmmakers have avoided watching this film because we don’t have the proper language to dissect its racial components, and rightfully so. Some of these scenes are fucking *rough*, especially the KKK ones. Nevertheless, there are so many sophisticated shots, tender performances, and outstanding details that warrant validity to every single claim about this being a masterpiece. 

The racism throughout the film mostly feels mean-spirited because Griffith obviously thought so little about Black people as talent that he preferred the idea of having his white actors “play Black” by putting on burnt cork instead. (It’s even more of a mindfuck seeing the actual Black extras and how much fun they seemed to be having shooting this movie.) Griffith’s “Blacks” behave poorly as a means of reflecting the already present fear that the privileged, white classes in America had about decimating power and allowing equality. Oddly enough, even though his Black characters are flat and one-dimensional (and grossly subservient), their behavior is dictated and influenced by the white carpetbaggers of the North, the real “villains” of the film. 

This movie is made from a lens that is so nationalistic, so alt-right conservative in its values that it truly doesn’t think “all Black people are bad.” It calls that out in a few of the title cards. There it differentiates that “these” Blacks are different from those of you Blacks out there in the audience watching. Y’all are the “good” Black people, these are the niggers. And how fitting was it that Will Smith had his most “niggerish” moment with *the* comedian who brought the concept of niggers vs. Black people into the modern-day mainstream consciousness. So much so that it acts as a joke in The Office with Michael Scott feeling the need to do the bit using Rock’s “blaccent.” At the time, Rock’s joke was a commentary on how white America see Blackness (and thus how we’ve been conditioned to see ourselves), and Rock was saying what D.W. Griffith reflected to the country in his curation of American history by way of Thomas Dixon. Will Smith closed this aspect of history in one slap. A slap that said don’t forget we’re not stock characters. We’re not either/or. We are people with emotions, triggers, passions, intellect, and desires. We’re not a monolith that has to do things your way. We are not in a box. 

Mental gymnastics over whether violence was acceptable or not or how Rock and Smith should have handled it behind closed doors, etc., have no bearing here, especially since the African American community, in particular, knows that people get slapped for being out of pocket all the time. As D.W. Griffith reminded me while watching this ridiculous ass movie, violence is a part of the foundation of America. It’s in our DNA and African Americans have learned to survive under the threat, and at times promise, of violence, which has caused its own torment in our community affecting how we use violence on ourselves and our loved ones. One slap that was very personal and pointed has sent shockwaves through the fabric of the culture, one that we’ll be grappling with how to handle for some time. 

I’m simply stunned that this one movie is still able to act as a mirror to society and say so much about racial identity under a white gaze and the fears it elicits from the ruling, dominant class. The same fears and overreactions to the slap are the ones that drove the actions of Charlottesville, January 6, and all of the ongoing racial injustices in America. It’s all so stupid and so complicated but fascinating. This movie should not be relevant today. The Birth of a Nation should be an archaic relic of a society that is long forgotten, but it’s not. And, here we are. For better or worse, what a time to be alive.

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