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Introduction
The legacy of The Birth of a Nation
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This introduction draws together many of the social, historical and artistic contexts of D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, a film that has continued to elicit reactions more than a century after its release. Griffith's own shifting reputation, from prolific director and producer to much lauded 'father of film' and ultimately to obsolete chauvinist, only partly matches the ongoing story of his most notorious film as it has continued to receive numerous reconsiderations and critical deconstructions. As we argue here, Birth is an ‘unwelcome masterpiece’ that refuses to go away, particularly at times such as the release of Nate Parker’s 2016 film self-consciously titled The Birth of a Nation about the 1831 uprising of enslaved Africans led by Nat Turner. As with the 1915 film, also the cinematic interventions of Oscar Micheaux, DJ Spooky and others, this later release drew sharp focus on contemporary racial injustices, even if only at first, before controversy about the director submerged the film’s popular status. Clearly, for many filmmakers, Griffith’s film is a cultural benchmark, not least for Spike Lee, who has used extracts in a number of his own releases. Together, these and many other cultural expressions offer means by which we can observe and confront a nation’s struggle with its historical, multicultural and multi-ethnic identity. Accordingly, the essays within this collection each seek to build an understanding of the relationship between art, culture and ethics in the context of The Birth of a Nation’s enduring legacy.

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D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation

Art, culture and ethics in black and white

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