Cinema and Media Studies The Birth of a Nation
by
Daniel Bernardi, Michelle J. Martinez
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0070

Introduction

Released fifty years after the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln, D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation (1915) simultaneously revolutionized narrative film and sparked an international debate about race relations in the United States. Because of the film’s economic success, narrative and technical innovations, glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, and negative depictions of African Americans, it has remained the subject of both scholarly and cultural debate. Beginning with immediate responses both praising the film, as President Woodrow Wilson so famously did, and condemning the film, as groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) did, Griffith’s three-hour epic has remained a focus of critical scrutiny. Many of Griffith’s contemporaries applauded the film’s advances and called on the public to overlook its racist content or chalked it up to Griffith’s generation and his “southernness.” Others study this polemic and its impact on American culture. Due to the controversy, scholars have approached this film through many academic disciplines, including film and media studies, history and historiography, American studies, and political science. Whether from the perspective of its portrayals of whiteness as divine or its demonization of blackness, film scholars have examined its textual significance within critical race studies. A century after the initial release of the film, academics and critics continue to publish reviews of the film as a document of social history, a case study in reception, and a work of art.

Books

Relatively few books have been released that contain exclusive examinations of The Birth of a Nation, as scholars have preferred to address the film in book chapters, journal articles, and, more consistently, overviews of the prolific career of D. W. Griffith. As a result, volumes devoted to The Birth of a Nation vary greatly in form and perspective. Some of these focus on Griffith himself and his involvement with the preproduction and production of the film (see Aitken and Nelson 1965 and Hurwitz 2006), while others focus on the controversy regarding its treatment of race and the subsequent outcry and various attempts to ban the film (see Stokes 2007 and Fleener-Marzec 1980).

  • Aitken, Roy E., and Al P. Nelson. The Birth of a Nation Story. Middleburg, VA: Denliger, 1965.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book includes commentary and artifacts on the making of the film The Birth of a Nation by one of the primary investor/producers and incorporates a call to deemphasize the problematic racial representations and regard the film for its overall influence as a work of master cinema.

  • Fleener-Marzec, Nickieann. D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation: Controversy, Suppression, and the First Amendment as It Applies to Filmic Expression, 1915–1973. Dissertations on Film 1980. New York: Arno, 1980.

    E-mail Citation »

    Scholar Fleener-Marzec’s published dissertation is an intricate investigation of the ways in which Griffith’s film faced censorship and attempts to suppress its release in various markets.

  • Hurwitz, Michael. D. W. Griffith’s Film, The Birth of a Nation: The Film That Transformed America. Charleston, SC: Booksurge, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    The author provides an analysis of the life and film career of Griffith and explores the lasting influence of The Birth of a Nation on the culture and film production of the United States.

  • 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, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    In this comprehensive study of the political, aesthetic, and social discourse that informs the racial and cultural significance of The Birth of a Nation, Stokes offers a thorough examination of the historical context in which the film initiates social conflict.

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