Jeffrey Geiger
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Desegregating the screen
Oscar Micheaux and the rise of activist cinema
in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation
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This essay foregrounds early forms of politically activist filmmaking, where formal and critical intervention maps on to what Edward Said called 'contrapuntal reading'. This kind of reading takes into account both hegemonic imperialism and processes of resistance which, according to Said, involves 'extending our reading of the texts to include what was once forcibly excluded'. In the case of Oscar Micheaux, this process might be characterised as a form of contrapuntal creative practice, a glossing and self-reflexive engagement with hegemonic texts that exposes inequalities and the will to power that more seamless narratives seek to efface. Public condemnation of Griffith's The Birth of a Nation at the time of its release is well documented, but the film should further be seen as enmeshed in an ongoing contrapuntal dynamic that has undermined efforts to afford it an elite status in film history. The early films of Micheaux, pioneer of US 'race movies', play a key role here, denying The Birth of a Nation its apparent unity and coherence while laying bare a text 'riddled with cracks'. Griffith's film is shown up as a nexus of unstable and competing ideological and racial discourses that is always already at a point of coming undone. Micheaux's early films, though once considered marginal responses to Birth's mammoth spectacle, deliver more than a glancing blow to Griffith's authority: they unseat the integrity of Griffith's Manichean vision, overturning the hierarchies of centre and margins in American race politics and in established versions of US film history itself.

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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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