The Birth of a Nation: The Cinematic Past in the Present

The Birth of a Nation: The Cinematic Past in the Present

by Michael T Martin (Editor)




Over one hundred years since it premiered on cinema screens, D. W. Griffith’s controversial photoplay The Birth of a Nation continues to influence American film production and to have relevance for race relations in the United States. While lauded at the time of its release for its visual and narrative innovations and a box office hit with film audiences, it provoked African American protest in 1915 for racially offensive content. In this collection of essays, contributors explore Griffith’s film as text, artifact, and cultural legacy and place it into both the historical and transnational contexts of the first half of the 1900s and its resonances with current events in America, such as #BlackLivesMatter, #HollywoodSoWhite, and #OscarsSoWhite movements. Through studies of the film’s reception, formal innovations in visual storytelling, and comparisons with contemporary movies, this work challenges the idea the United States has moved beyond racial problems and highlights the role of film and representation in the continued struggle for equality.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253042354
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 04/24/2019
Pages: 344
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Cara Caddoo is Assistant Professor of History at Indiana University. She is author of Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life.

Peter Davis is President of Villon Films. He is an award-winning writer, producer, and director of more than seventy documentaries, and author of In Darkest Hollywood: Exploring the Jungles of South Africa.

Lawrence Howe is Professor of English and Film Studies at Roosevelt University. He is author of Mark Twain and the Novel: The Double-Cross of Authority , and editor with James Caron and Ben Click of Refocusing Chaplin: A Screen Icon Through Critical Lenses.

Chuck Kleinhans was Associate Professor Emeritus of Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University. He was co-editor of Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media until his death in 2017.

Julia Lesage is Professor Emerita of English at the University of Oregon. She is co-founder and co-editor of Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media (

Alex Lichtenstein is Professor of History at Indiana University. He is author of Margaret Bourke-White and the Dawn of Apartheid (IUP).

Michael T. Martin is Professor at The Media School, Indiana University and Editor-in-Chief of Black Camera: An International Film Journal. He is editor with David C. Wall and Marilyn Yaquinto of Race and the Revolutionary Impulse in The Spook Who Sat by the Door.

Paula Massood is Professor of Film Studies at Brooklyn College, CUNY. She is author of Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film and Making a Promised Land: Harlem in 20th-Century Photography and Film.

Anne-Marie Paquet-Deyris is Professor of Film and TV Series Studies and African American Literature atParis Nanterre University. She is editor with Marie-Hélène Bacqué, Amélie Flamand, and Julien Talpin of The Wire: L’Amérique sur écoute.

Melvin Stokes is Reader in Film History at University College London. He is author of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation: A History of The Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time and American History through Hollywood Film: From Revolution to the 1960s.

Andy Uhrich is PhD Candidate in Communication and Culture at Indiana University, and Film Archivist at the Indiana University Libraries Moving Images Archive.

David C. Wall is Associate Professor of Visual and Media Studies at Utah State University. He is editor with Michael T. Martin of the book The Poetics and Politics of Black Film: Nothing But a Man , and editor with Michael T. Martin and Marilyn Yaquinto of Race and the Revolutionary Impulse in The Spook Who Sat by the Door.

Linda Williams is Professor Emeritus of Film and Media and Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. She is author of Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White, from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson and Screening Sex.

Table of Contents



Introduction: Revisiting [As it Were] the "Negro Problem" in The Birth of a Nation : Looking Back and in the Present / Michael T. Martin

Part I: National/Transnational in Historical Time

1. Birth of a Nation ’s Long Century / Cara Caddoo

2. Great Moments From The Birth of a Nation : Collecting and Privately Screening Small Gauge Versions / Andy Uhrich

3. D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation : Transnational and Historical Perspectives / Melvyn Stokes

4. Defining National Identity: The Birth of a Nation From America to South Africa / Peter Davis

5. Is Birth of a Nation a Western? / Alex Lichtenstein

Part II: Representational and Rhetorical Strategies

6. Serial Melodramas of Black and White: The Birth of a Nation and Within Our Gates / Linda Williams

7. The Rhetoric of Historical Representation in Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation / Lawrence Howe

Part III: Cinematic Iterations in the Present

8. Something Else Besides a Western: Django Unchained ’s Generic Miscegenations / Paula Massood

9. 12 Years a Slave and The Birth of a Nation : Two Moments in Representing Race / Julia Lesage

10. Engineering Different Equations in the Wake of Birth of a Nation : Blackface and Racial Politics in Bamboozled and Dear White People / Anne-Marie Paquet-Deyris

11. Race, Space, Sexuality, and Suffering in The Birth of a Nation and Get Hard / David C. Wall

12. Anger or Laughter? The Dialectics of Response in The Birth of a Nation / Chuck Kleinhans


What People are Saying About This

Alan Rice

An extremely important contribution to scholarship with excellent essays across a range of views on the film’s importance and historical, genre, and cultural resonances. . . . It distinguishes itself from other collections of essays on The Birth of a Nation by its discussion of the film in relation to current race relations, its transnational scope, and its multi-leveled discussion of the way the film was watched both by its supporters and its critics.

Allyson Nadia Field

With this volume, Michael T. Martin offers a compelling reassessment of The Birth of a Nation that not only offers original scholarship on various aspects of its exhibition, reception, and formal properties, but pushes the inquiry into the present, looking at contemporary films through the long shadow of Griffith’s epic of racism and national division.

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