Commonwealth Fund Conference in American History
University College London
London, United Kingdom
June 25-27, 2015
2015 will see the centennial of the release of David W. Griffith’s highly controversial film The Birth of a Nation. The time is ripe for a scholarly review of the movie and its after-effects − one of which has been the eclipse of Griffith’s historical reputation because of the rampant racism of his film (in 1999 the Directors Guild of America abolished its D. W. Griffith award for lifetime achievement). The conference will assess what the film meant and still means in terms of race relations, American history, and film history. Keynote speakers will be Jane Gaines (Columbia University); Robert Lang (University of Hartford); Paul McEwan (Muhlenberg College); Cedric Robinson (University of California, Santa Barbara), Jacqueline Stewart (University of Chicago) and Linda Williams (University of California, Berkeley). Thanks to the collaboration of the British Film Institute, it is hoped to screen The Birth of a Nation, perhaps in conjunction with Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1920), at the National Film Theatre in London during the course of the conference.
The Birth of a Nation had a major impact on the early American movie industry. It broadened the audience for ‘spectacular’ motion pictures to include, for the first time, millions of members of the white middle class. It made it more or less inevitable that later films would include a musical score. Among its more baleful consequences almost certainly were the subsequent limitation, for several decades, of the range of African American characters shown on screen and the ban on ‘miscegenation’ included in the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America’s ‘Don’ts and Be Carefuls’ of 1927 and the Production Code of 1930.
Much of the work on the film’s reception has so far focused on the political protests against it organized by the NAACP and other organizations. Even this part of the story is still incomplete and a number of scholars are researching such protests, shedding considerable light on local politics and race relations in the city, state or region concerned. There were also many contemporary protests at the film’s racist representation of history (including letters to the press from, among others, former Mississippi congressman and black leader John R. Lynch). Much less work has been done so far on the reception of the film after its initial release in 1915-16 (it was playing in Little Rock, Arkansas, when the riots against integration occurred in 1957) and on the way it was received outside the United States. Yet The Birth of a Nation caused riots in the French-occupied part of the Rhineland in the early 1920s, was banned by the British Colonial Office for a time from South Africa, proved hugely popular in Latin America in 1915-16 and later in individual countries such as Canada and Germany.
In recent years, the film has continued to be dogged by controversy. A screening of The Birth of a Nation at the Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles was abandoned because of protests in 2004. In 2007, multi-media artist D J Spooky (Paul D. Miller) released a re-mixed version of the movie, linking it to modern American socio-political conflicts. There are persistent rumors on the internet of a reissue of the film, incorporating some of the scenes cut at the insistence of censors in 1915. After a century, the film continues to excite both controversy and concern. The conference is intended as a landmark event bringing together scholars from all over the world working on The Birth of a Nation and the issues raised by the film.
Although suggestions on other subjects are welcome, paper proposals (300 words plus 150 word bios) are invited on issues such as these:
- What light does the struggle against The Birth of a Nation, either at the time of its first release or later, shed on politics and race relations in particular communities or American states?
- How did African Americans express their opposition to the film in cultural terms? Papers on this might, for example, cover the work of Oscar Micheaux (in particular Within Our Gates); the Hampton Epilogue; screenplays, poetry and written fiction; performances of W. E. B. Du Bois’s pageant The Star of Ethiopia.
- How did the reception of The Birth of a Nation outside the United States compare to that in the U.S.? In which other countries was it least/most commercially successful, and why? How did film critics in other countries attack or applaud it?
- What were the longer-term effects of The Birth of a Nation on the history of American cinema? (This might include, for example: aesthetic issues; the effect on movie industry self-regulation; limiting representations of race on film; the influence of Birth on later films and directors.)
- What was the film’s relationship to other artistic forms, including literary and stage melodramas?
- How influential was the film’s construction of gender and references to miscegenation?
- The Birth of a Nation offered controversial representations of slavery, the origins and course of the Civil War, Lincoln, and the era of Reconstruction. In terms of the last of these, it may have had a significant impact on the virtual disappearance of Reconstruction as a theme from Hollywood historical films. Who has contested the film’s biased version of American ‘history’ and why?
- How has the movie been used by right-wing groups, especially the Klan, as a tool of propaganda? How important has it been in terms of the recruitment and ideology of such groups?
- In the light of Benedict Anderson’s view of the nation as an ‘imagined community,’ how did the representation of white ‘nationhood’ in Griffith’s film influence debates on American civil rights/citizenship?
- How did the film affect the development of film culture and reception in the United States or other countries?
Paper proposals should be sent by Tuesday, July 15, 2014 to both Melvyn Stokes (M.Stokes@ucl.ac.uk) and Iwan Morgan (I.Morgan@ucl.ac.uk)
For more information, see the conference website: