E. James West
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The Birth of a Nation , Black documentary and the 1992 L.A. uprisings
in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation
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This chapter places D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) in conversation with Matthew McDaniel’s documentary film Birth of a Nation: 4*29*1992 (1993). Aside from their shared titles, there initially appears little to connect Griffith’s sprawling historical Reconstruction epic with McDaniel’s frenetic, low-budget street documentary about the 1992 L.A. uprisings. The Birth of a Nation remains one of the most widely viewed films of all time; McDaniel’s documentary is a study in marginality, with a tiny circulation generated largely by phone order and word of mouth. Griffith’s film was a cinematic masterpiece which ‘electrified viewers with its sophisticated storytelling on an epic scale’. Birth of a Nation: 4*29*1992 crudely splices recycled television news coverage, images and voiceovers with grainy handheld footage of the L.A. uprisings, set to a bootlegged hip-hop soundtrack. Despite such differences, we can identify a shared concern which unites these contrasting texts, namely, a desire to provide a ‘real’ or ’documentary’ account of America’s racial past and present. As a key arbiter of cinematic realism, Griffith used a variety of visual and stylistic techniques to present The Birth of a Nation as an authoritative account of American history ‘as it was’. In turn, McDaniel’s ‘guerrilla style’ documentary announced itself to onlookers as a Black-authored ‘reality check’ – a counterbalance to both mainstream media coverage of the Los Angeles Uprising and racist Hollywood fictions that continued to rely on The Birth of a Nation as a ‘master text’ for representations of Black life.

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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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