Why I Study...the Racist Epic "The Birth of a Nation"

Professor of Media & Communication and Film Studies Paul McEwan tells us about his work studying D.W. Griffith’s wildly inaccurate 1915 film.

By: Paul McEwan  Thursday, July 15, 2021 01:45 PM

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Photo by Joseph Romano '23

Why I Study... is a feature of Muhlenberg Magazine where faculty share their research interests and academic work. This article was originally published in the Summer 2021 issue of Muhlenberg Magazine.

When I started studying film in the late ’90s, scholars would make the argument that historical veracity in fiction films didn’t really matter. Historians would critique inaccuracies, but film scholars found that annoying, sometimes saying history was socially constructed.

In 1915, when D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation came out, people flocked to theaters, spending up to $50 in today’s dollars to see it. It was a blockbuster.

The Birth of a Nation was an interesting example of the historical accuracy argument because it’s a film that no one would watch and say its inaccuracies don’t matter.

It depicts the history of Reconstruction. The film argues that it was a terrible mistake to give Black people rights and that they behaved terribly until the Ku Klux Klan “came to the rescue.”

You can’t critique that film without saying it’s inaccurate.

The film had lasting effects, too. You’re supposed to feel warm and fuzzy about the end—white people rallying against Black people. And many people did. The story makes the Klan into heroes. At the time, the Klan had become a defunct organization. But it was refounded in Atlanta on Thanksgiving in 1915, around the time The Birth of a Nation was released there.

I teach the film in several courses, including Intro to Film Analysis and Film History. It’s tricky because you’ve got to think about why you’re showing this racist epic to predominantly white students. There might be a lesson in racism they didn’t know about. For students of color, you’ve got to ask whether subjecting them to these images is worth it.

I just finished writing a book called Cinema’s Original Sin: D.W. Griffith, American Racism and the Rise of Film Culture, which will come out next year, about how cinefiles, academics and filmmakers have had to grapple with this film for more than a century. It’s always been this troublesome object.

Recently, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman had a scene of the Klan watching The Birth of a Nation. Lee uses cross-cutting, or parallel editing, a technique Griffith helped pioneer, to show Civil Rights activists listening to a description of a 1916 lynching while cutting to Klan members watching The Birth of a Nation, explicitly suggesting the film was linked to the murder.

Even though this technique is now common, there is no chance that it’s random. Lee knew exactly what he was doing: using Griffith’s techniques to condemn Griffith’s most famous film.