Corin Willis
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Black faces in The Birth of a Nation
D. W. Griffith’s art and the African American actor
in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation
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This chapter offers a new understanding of the operation of textual racism in The Birth of a Nation through an excavation of the ‘African American actor theme’ that has remained hidden in the film. It challenges the accepted history that Griffith replaced Black actors with blackface and instead illustrates how his direction involved a conscious interest in, and manipulation of, an African American screen presence. The chapter reviews the most significant moments of African American visibility in Birth and uses close analysis methods to reveal a ‘film within a film’ where a structured pattern can be seen in Griffith’s direction of African American actors. I argue that Griffith, through a series of interconnected scenes, controls the growth and dispersal of African American visibility as a means of establishing the core racist meaning of Birth – the notion of white space being invaded by a sexually charged Black gaze. The revelation of Birth’s ‘African American actor theme’ is used to prompt new debate, for example consideration of whether there is a need to reinterpret Griffith’s portrayal of the blackfaced villain Gus, and it is also used to deepen understanding of existing debate, for example consideration of the way in which racism is synthetically woven into Griffith’s ‘art’.

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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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