Lydia J. Plath
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A rope with two ends
Nate Parker, D. W. Griffith and the tangled legacies of The Birth of a Nation
in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation
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This chapter analyses the 2016 film The Birth of a Nation (dir. Nate Parker) in dialogue with D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (2015). Despite the hundred years that separate them, this chapter explores how the two films remain closely tied together in their themes of race and nation, their cinematic techniques, and their representations of sexual violence. Parker’s Birth uses the story of enslaved rebel Nat Turner to offer an alternative vision of Black heroism in direct counterpoint to Griffith’s infamous celebration of white supremacy. In the context of the Obama presidency and the Black Lives Matter movement, Parker sought to challenge Griffith’s assertion that African Americans had no place in the American nation by claiming that Black Americans were the true inheritors of the American Revolution. As such, Parker’s Birth attempts to intervene in long-standing debates about the meaning of Turner’s rebellion for African American communities. However, despite his explicit intention to challenge Griffith’s influence on Hollywood, Parker relied on many of Griffith’s cinematic techniques, precluding the radical possibilities of independent cinema. Parker’s film was ultimately undone by controversies about sexual violence, both in the film and in Parker’s past, which many critics saw as inextricable from one another. In the end, the chapter argues, by tying a rope directly between Griffith’s film and his own, Parker was unable to escape the tangled legacies of The Birth of a Nation.

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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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