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Ideology in Film

Page history last edited by Air Dupaix 14 years, 5 months ago

What is Ideology? 

To break down ideology in film, we must first discover the definition of ideology.  As Louis Giannetti says in Understanding Movies, "Ideology is usually defined as a body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture. The term is generally associated with politics and party platforms, but it can also mean a given set of values that are implicit in any human enterprise -- including filmmaking.”  In other words, pointing more towards film, ideology can be known mainly as “assumptions.”  It can be imagined as a way of looking at things or simply, as a "comprehensive vision."  Ideology pushes against already existing conformity by presenting a possible transformation in society.  This is done during a regulartory process of abstract thoughts.  As in the Wall-e picture to the right used in K-Punk's blog called

Robot Historian in the Ruins he says, "Ideology is not something foreign, something in a film with a strange power to impose itself on our minds; ideology is what we and the film share, what allows for the transfer of specific meanings between film and audience (a transfer which is not one way)."





Ideological viewpoints and principles detach from our own personal self-image.  They are usually discovered at an unconscious altitude and therefore, are not frequently observed.  With this said, although it is sometimes complex to understand how the personal riddle of ideological-ness works, it is valuable to understand how the individual reacts and perceives something at an unconscious thinking level.  It is also valuable to explore ideological ideas and attitude of others.



Just as Gerald Mast (Mast, “How to Watch Movies Intelligently”), a film scholar, declared, "there are few cultural products more influential in contemporary American life than movies.  They provide familiar stories that help us make meaning of our own lives and provide order to the chaos of our world.  They suggest to us what and whom we should value, as well as what and whom we should give short shrift to.”  Griffith’s Birth of the Nation confronts a rather repulsive gratifying idea of ideology.  I agree with Saul Austerlitz (Austerlitz, Black and White) that while watching Birth of the Nation, I almost felt compelled to root for the Ku Klux Klan due to Griffith

’s technological form of presentation, as they heroically save the day.  Griffith presents blacks in his film as men who rape helpless white women and who enjoyably disgrace the “innocent” white race all together.  Just as in the clip below:




Visually in Birth of a Nation, Griffith illustrates his points of racism on a dramatic level.  Just as in the congress scene, after the blacks have gained power, Griffith’s feelings about the marriage law between different races that was passed during this era is demonstrated.  Griffith creates a sense of such pragmatism, even when dealing with rather unrealistic situations, that it allows the audience to believe what he has placed on screen to be, in fact, real or true actuality.  Although it is not a straightforward, to the point, visual, this scene can be broken down to prove such a position of racism.  Just as seen in the clip below:



What breaks this scene down to conveying Griffith's racist ideology is his filming style, and there are many technical aspects that make these scenes generally "racist." Though not completely exemplified in this single clip, the first shot Griffith uses to convey this sense of disorder in the south is his manipulation with the mise-en-scene of a very early establishing shot in the film. In this clip, we see the street with the Cameron's house, the church in the background, and a mob of black soldiers crowding the scene. This scene is radically different from the exact same shot seen in the film at the beginning, that of the street, the house, the church, and only minor, calmer action occuring (a horse and carriage slowly moving off, children playing in the yard, etc.). Here is great juxtaposition on Griffith's part (though not as obvious as Eisenstein may have filmed it), where we have a pleasant scene of a happy social order in the beginning, where all is calm and collected, and then a frightening scene of complete chaos as that once happy place is overrun by a mob of black soldiers. This sense of disrupted order continues as Griffith utilizes parallel editing between shots of the uncontrollable mob and the shot of the innocent, frightened, and vulnerable white women cowering inside their home. The parallel editing sets a more frantic and energetic mood for the scene as it cuts from angry mob to innocent women, heightening the audience's perception of the moods of each shot and, as human nature would have it, empathizing with those who appear to be in danger.


The quick exchange of eyeline matches between the "mulatto leader" Silas Lynch and Elsie is another use of Griffith's technical filmmaking that brings out the lustful tempations of Lynch, both through his acting--more styled towards film with it's subtle details rather than exaggerated body movements--and through Griffith's cuts to Elsie, implying to viewers that Lynch wishes to marry (or something along those lines) her. This segways nicely into the following scenes of the Congress hall where a law is passed to allow interracial marriage.


The second important part of this clip shows the same chaotic disrupt of social order, but in a governmental setting: a Congress session run by newly elected black members. Griffith's filmmaking style is apparant immediately as he shows the empty but ordered Congress, desks all in a line, but then slowly fades in what almost seems to be that same mob from the Cameron's house. Congress is suddenly filled with action and it is clear that the leaders are having trouble maintaining order. The subsequent shots that close in on finer details in the hall from the initial establishing shot only show the uncivilized and hyperbolized actions of the new lawmakers. Griffith's menacing eyeline matches from the congressmen to the delicate white women observing from the balcony sets the mood before he introducees the title card explaining a new law to allow interracial marriage, setting up in the audience's mind that the women are being looked at in some kind of a lustful manner, and then transforming that emotion towards them into opinion on a law before the audience even knows of the law's creation. Griffith's ideology is achieved mainly through his attention to detail not only in setting up his shots, but also in his editing, choice of actors, and his use of title cards.




Works Consulted 

Hess, John. Film and Ideology. Jump Cut, no. 17, April 1978, pp. 14-16. Web. 22 Sept. 2009 

Austerlitz, Saul. Black and White. Reverse Shot Online. n.d. Web. 22 Sept. 2009 

Starr, Elena. Cinema--Ideology. Villanova. n.d. 22 Sept. 2009 


Ideology. Wikipedia. n.d. 22 Sept. 2009 

Robot Historian in the Ruins. k-punk. August 26, 2008. Web. 22 Sept. 2009 

Comments (1)

Sean Desilets said

at 11:06 am on Sep 24, 2009

• I think this page is great
• Some of the language is a bit stilted, especially toward the end
• Could use a more efficient second clip
• In general, discussion of clips could be more specific (what formal operations helped Griffith to achieve this effect?)

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