The history of colour segregation in the United States stretches far beyond the 18th century when the African American resistance against this practice became widespread. Historical recordings of racism in the United States confirm that segregation against African Americans was characterised with so much violence and brutality that led to suffering and deaths of many of the victims. It is also noted that nowhere around the globe was racism prevalent and long-lasting than in the United States. However, the prevalence of racism against the African American in the United States was not overlooked by the victims. African Americans and their leaders eventually came and stood up against this practice. This resistance saw authors and film makers write books and create films that highlighted the plight of African Americans during the era of colour segregation. Movies such as D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters are among the famous films that recount the story of racial segregation. Donald Bogle’s Bright Boulevards, The Story of Black Hollywood Bold Dreams is also another creation that relates the story of race discrimination. The analysis of the two movies and Donald Boyle’s text create the basis against which this paper discusses the elements of colour segregation in the United States.
D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation” and "The Great Debaters"
The Birth of a Nation is a film that features participants from two main families. There are the Stonemans who stay in the North of America and the Camerons who are from the South of America. These two families are friends, and this is revealed when the children from the Stoneman family visit the Cameron family in the South. Romances are developed from the encounter of these two families. However, the Civil War eventually begins, and this threatens the relationship between the two families who join different sides of the war because of their racial differences. The events that happen during the civil war totally separate these families as each racial group wants to emerge as winners. However, at the end of the civil war, the two families are eventually reunited (Griffith 1994). The Great Debaters mirrors the real historical events that happened in the United States in the early 18th century. In the movie, a debate instructor of an African American university struggles to take his students to the highest level of debating in the country. The hard work and struggles of the coach and his students eventually manage to debate with Harvard University, which is the best white university in the country. The movie highlights all the social issues Wiley College, being the African American university in a racist regime faced (Christian 2008).
Bright Boulevards, The Story of Black Hollywood Bold Dreams by Donald Bogle
In his text, Donald Bogle recounts the social issues that faced the earliest African American actors in Hollywood. He does this using one on one interviews and personal recordings of African American actors. The audience is introduced to the hardships that African Americans faced while developing an acting career that was thought unsuitable for them by their white counterparts. The audience also come to discover that Black Hollywood had its own unique characteristics such as its own media, its own celebrities and its own lavish spots such as extraordinary hotels. Bogle also writes about the African American workers who served their white masters who were based in Hollywood (Bogle 2006).
The Birth of a Nation is a movie that has many scenes that portray defence towards colour segregation in the United States. One of the most memorable and touching scenes that portray this fact is the scene in which the Tod and Duke, who are the youngest sons from the Cameron and the Stoneman family, die in the battlefield. The two boys are seen to be heavily wounded while at war, and they hold each other in their arms as they die (Niderost 2005). In this scene, Griffith desires to evoke emotions of pity towards the whole practise of colour segregation. Griffith uses the symbol of war and the death of the two boys to show that colour segregation negatively affected both races, and it led to the destruction of lives and friendships that had emerged between these two races. The surrounding that is seen in the scene is characterised by bonfires, burned houses and crushed bushes. The body language that is seen between these two characters shows an aspect of love as the two perish in each other’s arms. Another memorable scene that defends segregation in the movie is the scene in which Gus pursues Flora Cameron when she goes to fetch water. Gus follows her so that he can ask her to be his wife. However, Flora turns him down and threatens to fall down a cliff if Gus continues to pursue her (Stokes 2008). Gus is unresponsive to Flora’s threats and continues to pursue her, and she falls down the cliff and dies in Ben’s arms. This scene is surrounded by plenty of trees since it is set in a forest. This surrounding seems scary, and the music Griffith chooses for this scene has a sombre tone that seems increase the sad mood that is seen during the death of Flora. This scene only continues to show the audience how segregation was expressed from both races (Watson 2008).
The Great Debaters complements Griffith’s assumptions towards colour segregation. In the film, the audience are made to sympathise with the way African American debaters from the Wiley College are treated. The motion picture is set during the era of the Jim Crow Laws in which there was segregation in all aspects of life between African Americans and the White people. For instance, there was segregation in the social amenities these two races received. This is seen in the movie in which the black students are not exposed to the same facilities that would help them in their debating sessions. Colour segregation was therefore widely spread in the United States and even Bogle notes this fact. He writes; “To make matters worse, the local booking companies refused to handle colored performers.” (Bogle 2006). This phrase indicates that African American actors could not be hired to perform in films simply because of their colour. However, just like the African Americans in the Birth of a Nation, the African Americans have to struggle and work extra hard in order to accomplish their goals and even surpass their white counterparts. In is text, Bogle describes the extra, hard work Africans had to perform: “But always, it was a rough, demanding life, a mad scramble to find jobs and to stretch earnings.” (Bogle 2006). Even though the black students are reproved by the whites, they resolve to ignore these abuses and strive for success. The same applies in Griffith’s movie in which the African Americans have to meet their white counterparts in the battlefield during the civil war. These two movies are a true depiction that it is only through struggle and continued determination that African Americans could achieve the same rights and privileges as the whites in the United States.
In the Great Debaters, Denzel Washington uses colour film to evoke several emotions from the main characters and all the other individuals that are involved in the production and starring of the movie. This aspect may also seem to evoke different feelings from the audience. The use of colour in the film depicts equality and non-segregation between African Americans and whites. The characters in the movie, especially the whites are made to question their belief of superiority to the blacks. The whites seem to acknowledge the physical aspects that differentiate them from the blacks. However, the whites fail to recognize the intellectual difference between the two races (Christian 2008). This is majorly seen during the debate sessions in which African American students present their ideas in an extraordinary and excellent approach that is better to that of the white students. In view to culture shock, the whites in the movies find it hard to approve that African Americans have the same qualities as they do.
This is because of the view that the whites are superior and will always the most superior race to the African Americans. In the movie, the whites have had this opinion for a long time, and to them, it is particularly impossible to understand how the African American could be seen as an equal person. As to the African American, the main goal is to have the same rights as the whites. The fact that this race has struggled for such rights seems to make them fit in the white society (Christian, 2008).
In the movie, class and colour status play a prominent role in determining. The movie is set during the era of the Jim Crow Laws Class in which the whites had a high status in society. Colour status in the movie is beneficial as it determines the access of an individual to social amenities and financial capability (The Great Debaters 2008). The higher the status of an individual in society the more access they have to better social amenities. The whites were therefore more capable in terms of financial ability as compared to the blacks. In his book, Bogle describes the residential places of the whites as “Certainly, Nellie, like other colored Americans of the time, envisioned Southern California as a land of opportunities. Property was cheap, which meant that in time, homes could be bought.” (Bogle 2006). This shows how the social status of the whites was high, and in turn, they had access to economic resources which was unlike the African Americans. In view to political activism and religion, their importance lay in the fact that they acted as tools in which every race advocated its rights. This mostly applied to the African Americans, whose politicians used churches and developed political parties to urge their followers to stand up for their rights (Christian, 2008).
The creation of movies and the authorship of books to advocate for the rights of African Americans; and to reveal the ways in which colour segregation was widespread has been the most significant aspect especially in the United States. Through these aspects, African Americans get a chance to show to the whole world the history of their struggles. This showcase encourages other undermined individuals in the entire world to rebel against oppression. All in all, one comes to understand that the cultural segregation that the African Americans underwent forms a unique part of their history, their current lives and the lives of their future generations.
Bogle, D. (2006). Bright boulevards, bold dreams: The story of Black Hollywood. New York: One World Ballantine Books.
Christian, M. A. (2008). 'The Great Debaters'. Jet, 112(26), 52.
The Great Debaters. Genius Products (TVN), DVD Release Date: May 13, 2008.
Griffith, D. W., & Lang, R. (1994). The birth of a nation. New Brunswick [u.a.: Rutgers Univ. Press.
Niderost, E. (2005). The Birth of a Nation. (cover story). American History, 40(4), 60.
Stokes, Melvyn. (2008). D.W. Griffith’s the Birth of a nation: A History of the Most Controversial Picture of All Time. New York: Oxford University Press.
Watson, W. (2009). D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation": A History of 'The Most Controversial Film of All Time'. Southern Quarterly, 47(1), 172-176.