The Birth of a Nation: more than racism on film?

Saturday 17 October, 14.00 until 15.30, Cinema 2, Barbican Artistic Freedom

‘Every soul in that audience was in the saddle with the Klansmen and pounding hell for leather on an errand of stern justice, lighted on their way by the holy flames of a burning cross…the audience didn’t just sit there and applaud, but they stood up and cheered and yelled and stamped feet until Griffiths finally made an appearance.’
Karl Brown, DW Griffith’s camera assistant at the premiere of The Birth of a Nation, February 1915. 

More than just a premiere, it was a social and technological phenomenon. This was the first film to be shown in the White House before President Woodrow Wilson and the chief justice of the US Supreme Court. Initially feted by the American establishment, it tells the revised history of the Old American South and its so-called ‘betrayal’ during the American Civil War.

The film was engulfed in controversy: it suggested American society only functioned properly through the subjection of its black population. It celebrated the reformation of the Klan as the antidote to an emerging, dysfunctional black post-war political empire. The Birth of a Nation was attacked by the NAACP, journalists, political campaigners, trade unions and local film government. Protests and audience reaction to the film, for and against, led to violent and in some case fatal incidents.

Today, the innovative scope of Griffith’s work continues to trouble critics, filmmakers and fans alike. Awkwardly, The Birth of a Nation was a decisively original work of art - albeit one that substituted lies for reality. Indeed, a century on, Griffith’s racist epic has lost none of its offensiveness or cinematic beauty: as recently remarked by one critic, ‘the worst thing about The Birth of a Nation is how good it is.’ Yet writer Scott Simons has equally noted that it now ‘seems to fail audiences on every ethical, emotional and perhaps even artistic level’.

Griffiths himself maintained the film was never intended as racist. Rather, it was attack on North American carpet baggers who undermined the Southern political establishment, which led to defeat and the humiliation of Reconstruction. For him, this was essentially a matter of free speech. So what we do we make of the film today? Does the current reaction to it mirror contemporary controversies about free speech and the arts?

Listen to the debate

Dr Graham Barnfield
senior lecturer in journalism, University of East London

Jenny Barrett
reader in film studies and popular culture, Edge Hill University

Nadia Denton
film industry specialist; author, The Nigerian Filmmaker’s Guide to Success: beyond Nollywood

Kunle Olulode
director, Voice4Change England; creative director, Rebop Productions

Dr Melvyn Stokes
professor of film history, University College London; author, The Birth of a Nation: a history of the most controversial motion picture of all time and American History through Hollywood Film: from the Revolution to the 1960s

Nathalie Rothschild
freelance journalist; producer and reporter for Sweden's public service radio
Recommended readings
No place for the real Hollywood story

Ahead of the Battle of Ideas 2015, film historian Kunle Olulode explores why Birth of a Nation is no ordinary film

Kunle Olulode, Index on Censorship, 12 October 2015

The Birth of a Nation

Comprising a decade of archival research and published on the 100th anniversary of the film's release, this richly detailed study considers both the film's afterlife and the artistic, industrial and moral surroundings in which it was created.

Paul McEwan, British Film Institute, May 2015

The worst thing about 'Birth of a Nation' is how good it is

The merits of its grand and enduring aesthetic make it impossible to ignore and, despite its disgusting content, also make it hard not to love.

Richard Brody, New Yorker, 1 February 2013

D.W. Griffith's the Birth of a Nation: A History of the Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time

In this deeply researched and vividly written volume, Melvyn Stokes illuminates the origins, production, reception and continuing history of this ground-breaking, aesthetically brilliant, and yet highly controversial movie.

Melvyn Stokes, Oxford University Press, U.S.A., 15 January 2008

Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942

Set against the backdrop of the black struggle in society, Slow Fade to Black is the definitive history of African-American accomplishment in film - both before and behind the camera - from the earliest movies through World War II.

Thomas Cripps, Oxford University Press, 1 February 1977

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