Thursday, November 13, 2008

Birth of A Nation

Source Google Video

From Dr. Catherine Lavender, director of American Studies Program at the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York:
In D.W. Griffith's masterpiece, two families -- the Stonemans from the North and the Camerons from the South -- experience the Civil War and Reconstruction. Through these families' stories, Griffith addresses the devastation wrought by the Civil War (especially in the South) and the social disruptions caused by Reconstruction. Griffith adapted the film from a propaganda piece about the Ku Klux Klan, The Clansman, written by Thomas Dixon. D.W. Griffith, a Southerner and the son of a Confederate War cavalry officer who returned from the war a broken man only to "suffer the disgrace of Reconstruction," blamed Reconstructionists and Southern blacks for his own misfortunes. This film reflects that resentment by depicting radical Republicans and "uppity" African-Americans as the cause of all social, political, and economic problems since the Civil War.

When Griffith released the film in 1915, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (or NAACP) and other groups protested; the NAACP published a 47-page pamphlet titled "Fighting a Vicious Film: Protest Against The Birth of a Nation," in which they referred to the film as "three miles of filth." W. E. B. Du Bois published scathing reviews in The Crisis, spurring a heated debate among the National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures as to whether the film should be shown in New York. However, President and former history professor Woodrow Wilson viewed the film at the White House and proclaimed it not only historically accurate, but like "history writ with lightning." Like Woodrow Wilson, many whites felt it a truthful and accurate portrayal of racial politics, so much so that they flocked to join the rejuvenated Ku Klux Klan. The years after Griffith released The Birth of a Nation saw massive race riots throughout the country, peaking especially in the North in 1919; many historians lay the blame for this racial conflict on Griffith's The Birth of a Nation.

The Birth of a Nation is a complex artifact of its times. Several noteworthy themes run through the film, and it especially sheds light on the construction of categories of identity -- race, class, gender, and region -- during the early twentieth century

In the Library:
  • Michele Faith Wallace. The Good Lynching and "The Birth of a Nation": Discourses and Aesthetics of Jim Crow. Cinema Journal, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Autumn, 2003), pp. 85-104 [JSTOR]
  • Stokes, Melvyn. D. W. Griffith's The birth of a nation: a history of "the most controversial motion picture of all time" New York: Oxford University Press. [NetLibrary]
  • Lang, Robert. The Birth of a nation : D.W. Griffith, director. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. [WorldCat]
  • Stone, David P. Film History. New Jersey: Jones International, Ltd. [WorldCat]
  • Pearson, Roberta E. Eloquent gestures: the transformation of performance style in the Griffith Biograph films. Berkeley: University of California Press [NetLibrary]
On the Web:
  • D.W. Griffith. PBS American Masters Series [Link]
  • Derek Malcolm's Century of Film. The Guardian U.K. [Link]