This volume of essays works to reveal and iterate some of the many ways in which D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation continues to be read and received into the twenty-first century. As many have remarked in this volume, the discourse on Birth is ongoing and incorporates perspectives from scholars of various fields, including cultural commentators, journalists and filmmakers. This timeline has been produced to give a picture of the sheer breadth of that discourse, frequently one that saw disagreement between its contributors. It reveals how diverse the fields may be where the discourse might emerge: film journals, video disclaimers, museum catalogues, press headlines, biographies, book chapters, films, television and much more. Some of the most well-known names in academia can be found writing about Birth, such as Thomas Cripps, Donald Bogle, Janet Staiger and Manthia Diawara, and many reiterate the ‘birth’ metaphor in their critical approaches and, frequently, the titles of their books and articles, meaning that the discourse constructs the perception of a film that ‘started something’. Although this list is selective, it will be helpful to those seeking to explore the history of the Birth discourse. The timeline begins in 1915 and offers short summaries for each item.
The relationship between historical narratives and film is one that regularly gives rise to a debate about fidelity or authenticity because of a perceivable ‘interplay’ of fact and fiction that fulfils an agenda. From the release of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, this debate has evolved around accusations of lies and affirmations of truth from the public, from civil and censorship bodies, religious figures and the director himself. In a review of audience reception of a dramatised lecture about the film in its centenary year, this chapter argues that there is a strong perception of the film as ‘false history’, with a view that it should not be banned from public exhibition but instead used in a critical context to educate and inform. Contemporary culture and politics, also, raise similar debates, particularly over the phenomenon of ‘fake news’. The chapter then reviews Griffith’s promotion of his film in 1915 in the light of current views on fake news and identifies some remarkable parallels between them. It is concluded that Birth offers us one tool by which to promote media literacy and critical thinking in the world of digital communications.
With the role of Director of Voice for Change England, creative arts practitioner Kunle Olulode has pioneered multiple initiatives for Black artists, musicians and filmmakers in the UK and abroad. In November 2015 he joined the centenary symposium of The Birth of a Nation hosted at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool to talk about his work and to share his perspectives on race equality in the arts, difficult art and how to respond to Griffith’s film a century since its release. Here he considers the ways in which Birth prompted and inspired Black filmmakers and the temptation to self-censor felt by today’s generation of Black creatives and concludes that Birth continues to be relevant today as we navigate racism in the twenty-first century.
More than a century after its release in 1915, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation remains one of the most controversial films in cinema history. Drawing together a range of scholars and practitioners, this volume reveals a continued fascination in this film as a gauge of American racism and a milestone of early cinema that allows us to recognise the complex relationship between art, culture and ethics. Through stimulating analyses and new research on its reception, both on its release and one hundred years later, this book offers fresh, engaging perspectives on Birth. Topics include the presence of African American actors in the film, the craft of Griffith’s racist dialectics, public reception of the film in the state of Virginia and re-reading promotion of the film as ‘fake news’. It traces Birth’s legacies through historical and contemporary cinema and art, demonstrating that its significance has not diminished. Vivid relationships are drawn between the film and the art of Kara Walker and Kehinde Wiley. Traditions are found both upheld and challenged in film works by Oscar Micheaux, Matthew McDaniel, DJ Spooky, Nate Parker and Quentin Tarantino. In the context of ongoing struggles over racial inequities in the twenty-first century, with white supremacist activity very much a part of the contemporary world, this book thus offers relevant and productive routes into the study of Griffith’s film.
This introduction draws together many of the social, historical and artistic contexts of D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, a film that has continued to elicit reactions more than a century after its release. Griffith's own shifting reputation, from prolific director and producer to much lauded 'father of film' and ultimately to obsolete chauvinist, only partly matches the ongoing story of his most notorious film as it has continued to receive numerous reconsiderations and critical deconstructions. As we argue here, Birth is an ‘unwelcome masterpiece’ that refuses to go away, particularly at times such as the release of Nate Parker’s 2016 film self-consciously titled The Birth of a Nation about the 1831 uprising of enslaved Africans led by Nat Turner. As with the 1915 film, also the cinematic interventions of Oscar Micheaux, DJ Spooky and others, this later release drew sharp focus on contemporary racial injustices, even if only at first, before controversy about the director submerged the film’s popular status. Clearly, for many filmmakers, Griffith’s film is a cultural benchmark, not least for Spike Lee, who has used extracts in a number of his own releases. Together, these and many other cultural expressions offer means by which we can observe and confront a nation’s struggle with its historical, multicultural and multi-ethnic identity. Accordingly, the essays within this collection each seek to build an understanding of the relationship between art, culture and ethics in the context of The Birth of a Nation’s enduring legacy.