Film, Media and Music

E. James West

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.

in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation
Oliver C. Speck

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.

in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation
D. W. Griffith’s art and the African American actor
Corin Willis

This chapter offers a new understanding of the operation of textual racism in The Birth of a Nation through an excavation of the ‘African American actor theme’ that has remained hidden in the film. It challenges the accepted history that Griffith replaced Black actors with blackface and instead illustrates how his direction involved a conscious interest in, and manipulation of, an African American screen presence. The chapter reviews the most significant moments of African American visibility in Birth and uses close analysis methods to reveal a ‘film within a film’ where a structured pattern can be seen in Griffith’s direction of African American actors. I argue that Griffith, through a series of interconnected scenes, controls the growth and dispersal of African American visibility as a means of establishing the core racist meaning of Birth – the notion of white space being invaded by a sexually charged Black gaze. The revelation of Birth’s ‘African American actor theme’ is used to prompt new debate, for example consideration of whether there is a need to reinterpret Griffith’s portrayal of the blackfaced villain Gus, and it is also used to deepen understanding of existing debate, for example consideration of the way in which racism is synthetically woven into Griffith’s ‘art’.

in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation
Art, culture and ethics in black and white

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.

Oscar Micheaux and the rise of activist cinema
Jeffrey Geiger

This essay foregrounds early forms of politically activist filmmaking, where formal and critical intervention maps on to what Edward Said called 'contrapuntal reading'. This kind of reading takes into account both hegemonic imperialism and processes of resistance which, according to Said, involves 'extending our reading of the texts to include what was once forcibly excluded'. In the case of Oscar Micheaux, this process might be characterised as a form of contrapuntal creative practice, a glossing and self-reflexive engagement with hegemonic texts that exposes inequalities and the will to power that more seamless narratives seek to efface. Public condemnation of Griffith's The Birth of a Nation at the time of its release is well documented, but the film should further be seen as enmeshed in an ongoing contrapuntal dynamic that has undermined efforts to afford it an elite status in film history. The early films of Micheaux, pioneer of US 'race movies', play a key role here, denying The Birth of a Nation its apparent unity and coherence while laying bare a text 'riddled with cracks'. Griffith's film is shown up as a nexus of unstable and competing ideological and racial discourses that is always already at a point of coming undone. Micheaux's early films, though once considered marginal responses to Birth's mammoth spectacle, deliver more than a glancing blow to Griffith's authority: they unseat the integrity of Griffith's Manichean vision, overturning the hierarchies of centre and margins in American race politics and in established versions of US film history itself.

in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation
Jonathan Ward

This chapter examines the White Saviour in D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and analyses the particular legacy of this figure as seen in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012). In terms of filmic representation and racial ideologies, the White Saviour is an example of Griffith’s legacy that is particularly impactful. While many scholars have written of the White Saviour trope as a figure who works to uplift or improve non-whites around them, this chapter considers this trope as being more broadly a figure whose function is to centre and save whiteness, whether or not non-white figures are constructed as passive recipients of salvation. In this examination, the White Saviour can be understood as being a more expansive trope that is not contingent upon the salvation of non-white figures, but is fundamentally reliant upon, and always marked by, concretising whiteness as superior to non-whiteness.

in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation
The Birth of a Nation in the era of ‘fake news’
Jenny Barrett

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.

in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation
Abstract only
The legacy of The Birth of a Nation
Ian Scott
Douglas Field
, and
Jenny Barrett

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.

in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation
Dr Jenny Barrett

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.

in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation
Nate Parker, D. W. Griffith and the tangled legacies of The Birth of a Nation
Lydia J. Plath

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.

in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation