Robert J. Corber
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The Birth of a Nation and the temporalities of race
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How should scholars approach The Birth of a Nation, a landmark film in terms of technique, but also one that is deeply racist? One productive way is to consider the film alongside the significance of Confederate monuments, which were erected after Reconstruction to celebrate soldiers of the Lost Cause. Similarly, as scholars have explored, Griffith set out to rewrite the history of the Confederacy by depicting the former Confederate soldiers as brave and noble men who had successfully resisted Reconstruction. The film gained further traction – becoming a Ku Klux Klan rallying call – through Griffith’s exploitation of a central fear in the white racist imaginary: that if African American men became equal to white men, then they would insist on the right to marry white women, which in turn would miscegenate the South. The debates about Confederate monuments – whether to pull them down or leave them as testament to the South’s racist past – carries strong echoes with the debates about whether to cancel The Birth of a Nation, or whether to use the film as an example of dangerous white supremacy. The historian Thomas Laqueur has argued for the creation of ‘pluralistic landscapes’, which include a mixture of monuments that commemorate Black history to be placed alongside monuments of the Confederacy. However, as the afterword considers, Laqueur’s suggestions does not adequately consider the temporality of Black life in which the effects of the nation’s white supremacist past are continuing to unfold.

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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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