Lost in the Movies: Dark Knights for Different Eras

Dark Knights for Different Eras

Our hero, a masked vigilante, concocts a disguise which will instill a sense of primal fear in the perceived enemies of his community. Opposed by a garishly made-up villain, fueled by anger at the death of a beloved woman, the hero strikes blows in the name of order. But the hero's crusade for extralegal justice is instigated by outside forces, as they introduce an element of chaos and anarchy into the community, and the hero must break the law in order to uphold it. "Welcome to a world without rules," indeed.

I of course don't mean to suggest that The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith's epic 1915 ode to the Ku Klux Klan, and The Dark Knight, this summer's critically-acclaimed, crowd-pleasing blockbuster hit, are somehow identical. There are numerous differences, large and small (most importantly, the Batman movie isn't virulently, or even nominally, racist). Yet the other night I wrote about the Batman film's mythological overtones, and re-watching The Birth of a Nation for my D.W. Griffith series, I was taken aback by how Griffith's film also works on the level of myth, and in much the same fashion (both generally and specifically) as The Dark Knight.

True, The Dark Knight - as it bears repeating - does not hold an entire race or ethnic group responsible for myriad social ills. It's not a bigoted work. But it is, I think, deeply conservative, and not in the usual libertarian or even neoconservative sense. This is old-fashioned, uphold-the-social-order-by-any-means-necessary conservatism. Both Birth of a Nation and The Dark Knight paint a gloomy picture of a lost community, descending into the pit of disorder and decay. Birth shows us the paradise lost, while Knight begins after the fall (appropriate enough for a less sentimental era). In both communities, a malevolent force steps in from outside as a manifestation of all the repressed fears and buried animal instincts of the townspeople: in the silent work, it is Silas Lynch - mulatto politician who enfranchises the freemen of the South; in the modern work, it is Joker whose diabolical pranks empower and compel people to make life-or-death decisions.

And in both works, the communities are inhabited by people who are not necessarily evil, but weak, incapable of defending themselves from the manipulations of bad individuals. Frequent title cards in Griffith's film exhort us to misguided sympathy for the "ignorant" ex-slaves, who aren't ready for the liberty they're handed and drag the South down into the abyss with them. The mission of the newly-minted Klan is as much to put the rabble in their place as it is to punish the flagrant evildoers. Meanwhile, in Gotham, Batman works outside the law and takes on the responsibility of defending the community himself (he doesn't even want help from fellow vigilantes) because the citizens aren't capable of doing so; and in the end, he concocts a lie to keep them believing in the public order.

The most interesting aspect in which the two films part ways is in The Dark Knight's ambivalence and ambiguity. Birth of a Nation is decidedly un-ambivalent about the righteousness of its hero's cause and when he triumphs, the slate is wiped clean (which in this case, disturbingly, means black voters disarmed and disenfranchised, followed by the perplexing title card "Liberty and union, one and inseparable, now and forever!" - don't they really mean "order and union"?). Still, in the context of the film the (white) citizens of the town are empowered by the Klan's actions, and at film's end the Klan has restored the ideal community. In The Dark Knight, Batman tries to articulate a faith in the Gotham citizens' innate goodness but his very actions speak louder than words, and it's clear he doesn't trust the people of the city to protect themselves, even as he hopes to lead them in this direction. He has not done so yet by film's end because it's a hard slog. Batman's work is presented as lonely, exhausting, and thankless. His heroism is stoic, whereas the night-riders of Birth are covered in glory at film's end.

Curiously, The Birth of a Nation is both more populist and more authoritarian than The Dark Knight. More populist because it sees the KKK as intimately connected to the community, as a means for people to earn back their sovereignty, whereas Batman acts in solo capacity, circumventing the citizens and lawmakers of the community when necessary, taking care of Gotham in an elite capacity. But his solitude also makes him an outsider and a freak, taking the edge off his elitism and giving him some of the pathos of an underdog. This is where Birth of a Nation is more authoritarian because, by empowering a whole segment of the community, it further marginalizes those who remain outside, who are either "inferior" (the freed blacks) or outright "dangerous" (the mixed-race). Unlike Batman, the "Little Colonel" who founds the KKK has not only personal power and conviction, but the power of numbers on his side. Hence, even aside from the film's racism, the ascension of these particular masked vigilantes leaves a bad taste in the viewers' mouth.

So then what do the similarities between The Dark Knight and The Birth of a Nation tell us? They key us in to a fundamental part of the human psyche, one which fears (but is also titillated) by the unknown, and wary of exhortations to understanding and moderation. I said before that The Dark Knight reaches for the level of myth, and myth works on an almost primordial level in the mind, where our deepest fears and desires lurk. The Birth of a Nation, the first blockbuster, the first great American feature, is an active and dynamic piece of pop mythology which shows us a paradise lost, shattered by violence, littered with anarchy and lurking menace (presented largely in sexual terms), restored to something approaching its former glory by upstanding members of the community. The Dark Knight's mythmaking takes on a slightly different tenor: its knight wears black not white, and stands as much outside the community he protects as he does within it. This alienation and conflicted relationship to society is a modern variation which makes the latter-day film both more palatable and more tragic. We may still fear the outside world and the temptations of the unrestrained id, but we are just as untrustworthy of rigid order, tight-knit but exclusive communities, and exhortations for an idealized past.

This is how I see it; but what do you think? I believe this is an interesting can of worms I've opened, but the lid's only just been popped off. Is The Dark Knight conservative? If so, how conservative? Do its divergences from Birth of a Nation outweigh their commonalities, or are these divergences only interesting because they occur within the same framework? You tell me; unlike Batman and the Little Colonel I'm fully willing to turn this conversation over to the rabble (that's you)...


T.S. said...

Allow me to say once more how much I enjoyed this post and how happy I am that it was published within the window of my first round-up feature on my blog. I've been stewing on this post's thesis for some time now; I do hope too that maybe some more people will take the time to throw out their ideas because it's been a while since I've seen both films and certainly there are other people who can comment more academically than I. (Additionally, I have very high regard for The Dark Knight and a very low opinion, both socially and cinematically, of The Birth of a Nation.)

I agree with the inherent conservatism of both films, and no matter how many differences as both films have, I think the essential conservatism of both is insurmountable (the "old-fashioned, uphold-the-social-order-by-any-means-necessary conservatism" of which you write). I do think, however, that The Birth of a Nation blindly glorifies that conservatism and downplays its effects while The Dark Knight seems to anticipate the effects of its conservatism and mulls the rationality of its actions. This might fall within the ambiguity that separates the films.

As you write, there is no ambiguity whatsoever in The Birth of a Nation; the righteousness of its hero(es) is flagrantly (and disturbingly) presented as stemming from a moral superiority to the perceived "villains." Batman is morally superior to the Joker as well, although the film presents the two as closer together than Birth presents the Klan and freed slaves. What makes Batman morally superior, though? Certainly such an enumeration would include: not killing randomly or coldly and recognizing the dignity of human life; attempting to stop terrorism; and advocating on behalf of the greater goodness in order instead of anarchy. But to reach these means, he (and we) have to see how near to the line of lawlessness he is willing to tread. A good example of this is Batman's global positioning sonar system, which is used to track the voices of characters and determine where they are (a clear allegory, if you ask me, of the controversy surrounding the government's warrant-less wiretapping program); not only does this mimic the echolocation ability of actual bats, but it provides for some moral conflict. Although a significant character in the film opposes the device, Batman understands its temporary importance to stop evil and entrusts it to an essentially "righteous" character who will oversee its destruction once the current vigilanteism is finished. (No loose ends here because, in cinema, you can present stories with no loose ends.) The means necessary to "enforce the law," as far as Batman is concerned, are constrained under the umbrella of the Joker's anarchy; Batman must defeat him without crossing the line. Historically speaking, the Klan did cross many, many lines in its attempt to "restore law and order" to the post-war, Reconstruction South. Where The Dark Knight is willing to present the parallels of its hero and villain – thus becoming more complex and ultimately more entertaining, if you ask me – The Birth of a Nation is not.

I would slight amend your summary of Batman's faith in Gotham's citizenry. As much as he claims to possess a faith in their righteousness, I wouldn't say it's necessarily that he doesn't trust them as much as he understands they (specifically Harvey Dent) can't do what needs to be done. (Or perhaps, yes, he doesn't trust that they will.) He knows that by nearing the Joker's line, he will become vilified by many and living with that vilification – balancing it with his crusade to bring order to Gotham – is both his social curse and mission. In many ways it is inherently conservative, but coming from this liberal, in many ways it is also inherently realistic.

Joel Bocko said...

t.s, great, meaty response to my musings. I generally agree with your higher assessment of Batman's character (which is obviously very much a reflection of a more ambiguous, conflicted time) with some some qualifications.

Though as you note, Batman is fighting terrorism and avoiding anarchy, one could say that the Klan is doing the same thing in Birth. The difference is that Birth of a Nation's world refers to actual historical events and a specific group of people, in highly inaccurate and misleading ways, whereas Dark Knight's world is highly fictional and generalized, so as not to be offensive. But within the worlds of the film, they are perhaps not that far apart.

Where they do differ concretely, as you point out, is Batman's commitment to nonmurder (if not nonviolence) and also the film's amiguous treatment of its conservative worldview (which is why I have more respect for it than, say, Iron Man which sort of unquestioningly flaunts its neoconservative ethos or, for that matter, lots of movies which unquestioningly flaunt their liberal views).

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