Oliver C. Speck
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The birth of an origin
in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation
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Through a close reading of discursive images that rest on prior discourses, as well as an analysis of camera movements and editing that combine those images, this chapter argues that D. W. Griffith uses mainly two underlying racist dialectics to drive his narration in The Birth of a Nation: absolute possession and essential purity. First, the film represents African American men paradoxically as free from worries when they are held in complete bondage, while the new-found freedom leads to a mob mentality; the freed slave is now captivated entirely by the drive to possess the white woman’s body. In other words, being held in captivity keeps the libidinal forces at bay that would otherwise overwhelm the Black (masculine) body. Second, the film establishes a topology that rests on an essential difference of Black/white and before/after, a difference that automatically marks the mixing of races as something ‘unnatural’, as something that we can only realise after the fact and that therefore must be avoided. This chapter further shows that filmmakers who follow Griffith’s model of classic realist narration cannot overcome the limitations of thinking slavery other than in the simplistic terms of an inhumane treatment, while the bound body in question is already completely dehumanised. This blind spot is exactly where revolutionary potential lies, where later films have opportunity to transgress the ‘laws’ put in place by Griffith for purposes other than racist limitation of the sphere of representation and identification.

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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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