In the Shadow of The Birth of a Nation: A Centennial Assessment of Griffith’s Film, University College London, 24-26 June 2015
Commonwealth Fund Conference in American History
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.
For questions or queries, contact Melvyn Stokes (M.Stokes@ucl.ac.uk) and Iwan Morgan (I.Morgan@ucl.ac.uk)