Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The film frequently returns to the street in front of the Cameron house in Piedmont, South Carolina. Each time we see the street, its appearance changes, mirroring the political and social mood of a given moment. When times are good, the street feels lighter: flowers are in bloom, families gather on front steps, the sun shines, and the street fills with horse carts, respectful slaves, and playful pets. The breeze brings life to characters’ faces as strands of hair dance back and forth over their eyes. Ben walks proudly and opens white fences, while others pick flowers and give them as gifts. In this harmonious Southern world, the Camerons brim with familial love and devotion.
When the passion of war fuels the town and the South starts off strong, the street transforms into a scene of passionate release. Bonfires light the street, and silhouetted revelers run up and down the block, jumping and waving flags. When Ben returns home from the war, however, his formerly bustling street has been transformed. The homes are broken and burned, the bushes are trampled, and nobody but Ben walks on the street.
Griffith loved the rolling natural landscapes of the South and therefore set many of his most tender moments there. Both relationships that end in marriage blossom during strolls through the flowering trees, soft hills, and lazy shores of the South. Away from social and political stresses, these idyllic landscapes become paradise on earth. Doves and squirrels frolic, and women stroll with parasols, arm-in-arm with their men. In one scene, an agonized Ben retreats to a picturesque hillside and sweeps his arms over the vast river below. The preservation of Southern ideals begins with the land.
Griffith and his cameraman Billy Bitzer employ the use of irises in The Birth of a Nation repeatedly. An iris is a black mask placed over the frame that creates a circular field of view as opposed to the traditional, rectangular frame. An iris can narrow to a small point, leaving most of the frame black, or it can open up nearly as wide as the frame itself. An iris acts as a spotlight, thereby highlighting a select portion of the frame. It can also function as a zoom lens or telescope surrogate, narrowing the audience’s field of vision to one point (or, conversely, widening it out from one point), as in the shots of John Wilkes Booth lurking in Ford’s Theater. In 1910, the iris reminded audiences of the ovular frames of photographs, cameos, and brooches, especially when combined with a soft-focus shot, in which a face looks healthier because wrinkles and signs of age are less visible. The iris shot of Elsie as Ben Cameron awakens in the hospital serves a variety of functions: it highlights her as a “vision” of his semiconscious state, it emphasizes her beauty, it singles her out as the most important thing in the room, and it serves as a visual reminder of the daguerreotype in which Ben first saw her face.