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  • Writer's pictureZarahn Southon

The Birth of a Nation - New Zealand, the land of the long white myth

Updated: Jun 13, 2020

When ten thousand protestors marched in Auckland to express outrage for the public lynching of George Floyd, and show international solidarity with Black Lives Matter, questions not raised since the Al Noor mosque terrorist attack were aimed toward New Zealand’s perceived historic racial harmony. During the first few days of the BLM protests in the U.S, the historian Scott Hamilton tweeted an unsettling photograph of university students riding horseback down Karangahape road in 1922. They were a drama troupe, draped in Ku Klux Klan robes after capping celebrating their play ‘Bu Blux Blan”.

Looking at the photograph, what struck me was the picture’s cinematic composition and framing; it was similar to scenes from a wild west film. Like most visual art practices, our pictorial decisions are responses to another image, narrative or artform. The photographer when they stepped out onto the middle of the road had an image in mind, capturing in cinematic scope the young clansmen, abreast with a row of buildings in perspective. It was an image shared in the minds of the university students as well, since only several years earlier, as children, they and the whole country had been seduced by a new and innovative approach to drama - – it was the fascist aesthetics of white supremacist cinematic propaganda.

Described as one of the most racist films ever made, widely used as a Ku Klux Klan recruiting tool, D.W Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is a fictitious representation of the U.S. civil war. The film was adapted from a novel The Clansman by avowed white supremacist and propagandist Thomas Dixon Jr.

The film opened in cinemas across America and Europe in 1915. Willing audiences were charmed by the film’s technical innovations and bigoted propaganda; many perceived the film to be based on historical fact. Being the first major production in the new medium of silent film, it stands as a grotesque caricature of the Reconstruction era. The screenplay is a cacophony of one-dimensional characters of "black rapists", "blonde-haired victims” and “Ku Klux Klan heroes”. It was to become the first major blockbuster, grossing $30 million. Thomas Dixon Jr.’s aim for his racist screenplay was in his own words to serve as propaganda.[1] The Birth of a Nation helped to revive and swell the ranks of Ku Klux Klan membership in the U.S.A. which in early 1915 had been in sharp decline. The Ku Klux Klan adopted the film as a recruitment tool; Grand Wizard David Duke was still using it to recruit members late into the 1970’s.[2] In 1915 news came from abroad of cinemas packed to capacity. France had banned the film – however not from any moral duty for the negative portrayals of African Americans played by white actors in black face - rather chief censors rejected the Americanisation of French cinema.[3] The ban only heightened the films international appeal. J.C Williams LTD working with Griffith secured the film to be released in Australia and New Zealand, and it was to premier in Sydney on Easter Saturday.

The Birth of a Nation premiered at the Wellington town Hall August 29th, 1916.[4] The critical and public response to the film was overwhelmingly positive. The Dominion on August 30th described the film as a 'spectacular presentation’ and depiction of brave Clansmen uprooting ‘negro insolence’[5].

Movie goers packed theatres across New Zealand in anticipation for the spectacle. Only a year prior, they had been primed with the silent film The Nigger, by the American playwright and white supremacist Edward Sheldon.The New Zealand Herald had praised that film for being ‘remarkable’ at addressing the ‘negro problem’.[6]

An Ashburton Guardian article admired The Birth of a Nation for its presentation of Aryan brotherhood ‘an impressive statement upon America’s national policy of race purity. The master stroke of the white man… the Ku Klux Klan saved the White Southerners from the fear of an African massacre’[7].

In film theatres throughout the country, scenes of hundreds of clansmen riding triumphantly across the screen to Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries were met with cheers from audiences for the ‘heroic Ku Klux Klan’. One critic gushed 'the Ku Klux Klan, that wonderful army of white horsemen which struck terror into the hearts of the black people and protected the stricken South.’ [8]

When the film reached Christchurch, one reviewer responded ‘…the remarkable battle scenes were frequently applauded, as were the thrilling episodes of the Ku Klux Klan in their struggle to regain supremacy for the white man over the negro.”[9]

The overt white supremacist propaganda satiated an already racist segment of New Zealand’s colonial community. In Taranaki young audiences - whose parents and grandparents likely participated in the Taranaki War, plundering Māori lands and participating in the brutal repression of the pacifist Māori community at Parihaka in 1881 - were treated to a glowing review in the Taranaki times, “the way the clansmen clean up the job is one of the most inspiring sights ever shown on the screen. Thousands of horsemen clad in ghostly garments, race to the dangerous rescue work, and vindicate the superiority of the white man, over the black"[10]

Dixon’s abhorrent ideology was able to affirm the Ku Klux Klan status among New Zealand’s educational elites, like Wellington District Schools Committee secretary Ernest Lilly wrote to the NZ Times that the ‘headmasters unanimously agree that the play(picture film) was instructive…and educational’ and he concluded ‘The effect on the minds and children of such a clean and inspiring picture was in every way uplifting ...signed your obedient servant” [11]

The legacy of The Birth of a Nation was felt throughout New Zealand for years to come. Organised Ku Klux Klan groups sprang up and stretched from Auckland to Christchurch, working with networks in Australia.[12] By 1923 member estimates for the Auckland Klan was one thousand.[13]

There were reports about threats and the targeting of migrant businesses. The Klan claimed responsibility for an arson attack in the suburb of Mount Eden.[14] Given the enthusiasm for white supremacy expressed by the press at the time of The Birth of a Nation, it should come as no surprise regarding the scant reporting of further hate crimes.

We should reflect upon a question posed by Scott Hamilton, ‘…has there ever been a film more influential?’ The Birth of a Nation is said to have kick started Hollywood and the modern blockbuster era, although its racist legacy is a difficult question to answer. That said, I am in no doubt the Black Lives Matter uprising has brought into renewed sharp focus the effects of colonialism, capitalism and its handmaiden, white supremacy.

Considering, it was the children of The Birth of a Nation generation - to make way for the Queen’s visit in 1952 -– that burned down a Marae and homes belonging to Māori of Ngāti Whātua along Auckland’s waterfront.[15] The same generation who in 1964 my whaea Dulcie Gardiner along with kaumatua of Ngāti Tūwharetoa tried in vain to physically halt bulldozers from the Ministry of Works, destroying their homes they still occupied, to make way for the township of Turangi.[16] Described in great detail in Māori academic Dione Payne’s book Riro Whenua Atu, institutionalised white supremacy drove her whanau from their lands in the 1960’s at Pōkaewhenua onto small reservations.

Enforcing white supremacy is seeing the brown and black body as the perpetual criminal. While spying on Māori and Muslim communities, New Zealand’s security services ignored repeated warnings from the Muslim community of sustained death threats from white supremacist organisations. Thus, allowing a lone gunman to go undetected as he planned his massacre of fifty-one innocent men, women and children. Like Dixon’s dark vision using modern technology to create propaganda that enforced a vision of forming white ethno-states, Tarrant enacted his twisted Go-Pro fantasy like a butcher in the name of white supremacy, and to spark a coming race war.

We must confront our racist past and colonial denialism. In Aotearoa, answering the call from Black Lives Matter was borne out of both local and international black and indigenous liberation movements of the 1960’s. One can rightly assume that the images of the black power salute at the 1968 Olympic games beamed into TVs across the planet, inspired young Pasifika and Māori to read the work of black radical Huey.P Newton, and to go on to form the Polynesian Panthers. Now, Māori, Pasifika and Pakeha radicals (= the common people who want to root out racism) chant a battle cry first heard in Ōrākau in 1864,[17] when a defiant Rewi Maniapoto facing down a British invading army and their demands to surrender, yelled the famous reply:

E hoa, ka whawhai tonu mātou, Āke! Āke! Āke!

Friend, we will fight on forever, forever and forever

[1]Thomas Dixon Jr, Wikipedia, 9 June 2020 [2] The Birth of a Nation: The most racist movie ever made? [3] Paris censorship Race, Politics, and Censorship: D. W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" in France, 1916-1923, Melvyn Stokes,Cinema Journal, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Fall 2010), pp. 19-38, [4] Entertainments, Dominion, volume 9, issue 2840, 3 August 1916 [5] Birth of a Nation, volume 9, issue 2863, 30 August 1916 [6] The Negro Problem, New Zealand herald, volume LII, issue 16109, 24 December 1915

[8] Birth of a Nation, Star, issue 11800, 11 September 1916 [9] Amusements, Lyttelton Times, volume cxii, issue 17270, 11 September 1916 [10] Entertainments, Taranaki Daily News, 8 November 1916 [11] The Birth of a Nation, New Zealand Times, volume xlii, issue 9730, 4 August 1917 1917&items_per_page=100&phrase=2&query=The+Birth+of+a+Nation&snippet=true&sort_by=byDA&start_date=04-08-1917&title=NZTIM [12] The K.K.K, Feilding Star, volume xix, issue 4978, 29 August 1923, [13] Ku Klux Klan, Society, Bay of Plenty Times, volume li, issue 8377, 28 August 1923

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Jun 15, 2020

Great essay thanks!

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