In this fascinating and authoritative account, professor Paul McEwan offers an in-depth examination of the history of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and the irreparable harm it’s caused to the American psyche and film studies in particular.
Cinema’s Original Sin: D. W. Griffith, American Racism, and the Rise of Film Culture
by Paul McEwan
University of Texas Press
At the time of its release, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation was presented as “history.”
Except it wasn’t.
The Birth of a Nation was based on The Clansman, a novel by the author Thomas Dixon, a fictional account of two white families living in the Reconstruction-era South. Despite being canonized as “one of the greatest films ever made,” and widespread commercial success (as well as receiving support from a number of influential figures, including President Woodrow Wilson, who ordered a special screening of the film at the White House (the first movie ever to receive that distinction.)
This critical support gave an air of legitimacy to The Birth of a Nation, which would go on to directly inspire the reformation of the Ku Klux Klan, which McEwan illustrates in no uncertain terms. The hooded costumes of the KKK are directly inspired by a scene from The Birth of a Nation.
For the first several decades of its existence, Griffith invoked ideas of Art and freedom of speech to justify The Birth of a Nation. After getting its foot in the door, it used the justification of “history” to excuse its continued presence in the canon.
In Cinema’s Original Sin: D. W. Griffith, American Racism, and the Rise of Film Culture, McEwan details this fascinating, convoluted history – and the history of film as a medium, in the process. In 1915, when The Birth of a Nation was first released, movies were seen largely as a novelty and a gimmick. McEwan examines the rise of film as an artform, worthy of serious study and analysis, via the lens of The Birth of a Nation.
He then proceeds to examine critical and public sentiments towards the film across subsequent decades, first as a historical document and curiosity and later as an “important document,” worthy of inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art.
Finally, he examines critical re-appraisals of the movie in the 21st Century via remixing and referencing, like DJ Spooky’s Rebirth of a Nation and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. In Cinema’s Original Sin, McEwan examines why a reappraisal of The Birth of a Nation is so necessary in 2022, talking about the lack of Black voices and perspectives in movies and TV, social movements like Black Lives Matter, and controversies surrounding the removal of statues dedicated to racists around the world.
Cinema’s Original Sin is a fascinating, authoritative, and essential text for anyone interested in film history, the history of racism and its on-going echoes, or examining the history of ongoing social conversations from the public, press, and academia. Conversations around racism, freedom of speech, and how best to approach history are just as important, if not more so, in 2022 than they were in 1915.
D. W. Griffith is also eerily prescient of many modern right-wing voices. When he was (rightfully) criticized for The Birth of a Nation, he portrayed himself as the victim, going so far as to base his next film, the epic Intolerance, on the idea. it bring to mind politicians and billionaires portraying themselves as victims when they face rightful repercussions for their actions and decisions.
In some circles, The Birth of a Nation is still considered a “classic” and an “important work of art.” That reputation would never have been founded in the first place without Griffith’s disingenuousness and shysterism. He used implication, people’s unwillingness to discuss uncomfortable topics, and America’s racial blind spots to forward his bigoted viewpoint for his own gain.
The Birth of a Nation is not a masterpiece. It’s well-executed propaganda. It’s time to call that out and acknowledge it, which Professor McEwan definitively does with flawless scholarship and inarguable logic. It’s an essential read and an essential contribution to numerous on-going cultural conversations.
Cinema’s Original Sin: D. W. Griffith, American Racism, and the Rise of Film Culture is available now from University of Texas press and as an audiobook from Tantor Audio
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