Every fall semester in my introduction to film history and theory course, I begin with D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. It is one of the first two films my students are assigned to watch outside of class. This year was particularly auspicious as it marked the film’s 100th anniversary and the first time several of my students had already seen the film, or parts of it, prior to taking the course. It was interesting to me that most of their encounters had been in high school AP History courses. It took me back to an undergraduate African American history course that was my first experience with The Birth of a Nation.
In that course I heard a lecture on the film, but never saw it. Youtube and Wikipedia had not yet been invented to make accessible this kind of cultural artifact. It wasn’t until graduate school that I actually saw clips of it. Even then my earlier encounter with the film and its problematic representations of African Americans was foremost in my mind. As I listened to my graduate professor extol Griffith’s prowess and creativity, I had a hard time separating the auteur from his artistry, as had been suggested. Over and over again I was reminded that “the nature of motion picture art . . . is not the art of external events and the people who perform them; it is an art of the camera and the film.”
Years later when I developed an introductory film course for a brand new minor at Spelman College, I struggled with whether to require my students to watch The Birth of a Nation in whole, in part, or even at all. Spelman is one of only two historically Black women’s colleges in the country. The students who choose Spelman do so because the space has been designed especially to support, nurture, educate and challenge them. I am usually quite good with the “challenge them” part of my job description. However, in this instance, I didn’t want to spend time convincing them to find value in the film. I wanted to dismiss its binary and hopelessly jaded images of Black people and move on to Oscar Micheaux and Lois Weber. However, if my goal was to expose my students to foundations of early American Cinema, then Griffith’s work was most certainly a part of that.
Arthur Lennig opens his essay “Myth and Fact: The Reception of The Birth of a Nation” with this quote: “ ‘If it is right for historians to write history, then by similar and unanswerable reasons it is right for us to tell the truth of the historic past in motion pictures.’ D.W. Griffith (1915).” This is from Griffith’s letter to the editor of The American during the film’s press junket. I use it to get my students thinking about the power of film (of visual images in general) to interpret history, therefore the sociopolitical, therefore our culture. I cannot teach them to see only Griffith’s camera because Griffith’s camera had social and political intent and a century’s worth of repercussions. The Birth of a Nation is still an extremely difficult film because so many of its premises unfortunately still frame parts of our national and global [un]consciousness. I ask my students to do some research on Griffith’s understanding of himself as a historian and his marketing strategies for BOAN. They come back with all the backstory including knowledge about the original work on which the film was based and then President Woodrow Wilson’s role in making the film a box office success. I ask them to put Griffith’s quote in conversation with the famous lines attributed to Wilson regarding film’s kinship to lightening and the writing of history.
They like that exercise because it reminds them of what they’ve learned about history. They see in action the African proverb that “until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.” Griffith might have liked this exercise as well. In his quote it is clear he was challenging the notion of who gets to write history. Griffith was declaring himself as qualified to write history as any trained historian for “unanswerable reasons.” My students almost agree with his challenge except the “unanswerable reasons” throws them off. Like many trained historians, Griffith fails to acknowledge that historical fact is often different from historical interpretation. Interpretation can be completely dependent upon the hunter—the one with the gun or the gavel or the green. Instead Griffith claims his right to narrate history with a camera by “unanswerable reasons.” Through these conversations my students come to see BOAN as their first great filmic lesson in perspective and the blindness that often accompanies it. Griffith is one of the first to take advantage of the kind of psychological “persistence of vision” that would help a segment of the nation need to believe this version of history.
So we work together in class to find ways to connect the cultural phenomena that was/is The Birth of a Nation to the things they understand today. As a result we have to take a ride through film history. We stop by Gone With the Wind (1939) and Imitation of Life (1934; 1959) and we visit several of John Ford’s mid-century revisionist histories—I mean films. When I think they have an understanding of early American cinema, we tour Europe, spending a couple of weeks with Kuleshov, Eisenstein, Lang, and Riefenstahl.
I remind my students constantly that in order to study film, they have to release their modern sensibilities (or at least be aware they have them) and think like the audiences of the films’ first runs. When it comes to BOAN they have no trouble understanding the NAACP’s theater protest or failed court injunctions against the film’s screenings. They also understand why the film could and did incite violence or how it helped to further alienate Black people from their citizenship. But, they often have trouble understanding why white audiences preferred this kind of rewriting of history. So I ask them what they know about Arabs or Native Americans, Africans or even African Americans in urban centers. I ask if their impressions came from some form of visual encounter and which history of America they prefer: the one where the pilgrims and the Native Americans break bread or the Trail of Tears.
This semester I still got lots of groans when I told them I expected them to watch the more than three-hour saga and write down their impressions. They told me a movie that long should be saved for rainy weekends and binge-watched on Netflix. I also instructed them to look for technical innovation. When do you see crosscutting? How do you compare the battle scenes to say Lord of the Rings? (Which one, they ask? Any of them, I reply.) I ask them to pay particular attention to the scene when Flora jumps off the cliff rather than be caught by Gus. This is the scene that divides them. They are torn between loyalty to any woman who must run from any male threat and the fear they inherited that their fathers/brothers/sons will be perceived as Gus. Congressman Stoneman’s tragic mulatto mistress also stirs cultural memories and reinscribes stereotypes. They tell me the film is “doing too much.” They look exhausted after we critique these scenes.
The film is especially hard this year. The black cork covering the faces of the “faithful souls” who work for the Camerons looks too much like the photos from Greek parties and Halloween costumes which pepper Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The infamous scene of the Black congress drinking alcohol, eating chicken and scratching their bare feet seems like it could be a political commercial from our last Presidential campaign. The Black children caricatures who are so easily terrified by the white children dressed in bed sheets makes current mockery of the very real fear and danger that marks my students’ lives. But they watch it all and they get angry and sad and scholarly. They amalgamate the depictions of fear and intimidation with their discussion of set design, film tinting, acting and costuming because multi-dimensional perspective and nerves of steel are skills they must develop. They have come to this college and to this moment to hone them.
I push them harder this year. I tell them to recreate a trailer of BOAN as if it were a contemporary film. My overall direction is to “design a trailer that might make your roommate go see this film.” They work in teams. These are the same teams that will work together all semester to shoot their final short films. This exercise bonds them very early on. I’m even excited to see what they will do.
Three weeks later, after they have much more film history and theory in their repertoire, they debut their trailers. Each one has a theme. My favorite is the horror film. The grainy black and white images play well against Imovie’s “Scary” trailer template. This group’s work reminds me of Hideo Nikata’s The Ring (1998). Maybe it’s the “psychological horror” of it all. One team does a great job crosscutting the horse chases to turn BOAN into a swashbuckling adventure. I am starting to see more of what may have attracted those early audiences. I am surprised by the trailer that depicts BOAN as a romance. Not in the sense of a romance about the Old South (that scenario is always at the forefront) but focusing on the romance between the couples. The romantic background music and the slow motion shots of the lovers visiting the cotton field are intriguing. I wonder if it’s the cut of the trailer or Griffith’s work that makes it look like a field of flowers? The frame with their heads pressed close as they sit overlooking the Cameron kingdom gives me another perspective. The trailer flashes to the scene with the couples happily married, all threats against them righteously cowed.
My students wait for my approval and I gladly give it. They have managed to add nuances even to this film. They have demonstrated that they have learned from it and grown from it and survived it.
I exhale as I put the DVDs away for another year.
Tarshia L. Stanley is associate professor and chairperson in the English department at Spelman College. She teaches courses in literature, film, and media studies and developed the minor in Film and Visual Culture. She has authored several articles critiquing images of Black women in African, African American, and Caribbean cinema as well as Black female iconography in American popular culture.