Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Response to "Birth of a Nation"

After taking a couple of Media Studies classes, I have seen clips of D.W. Griffith’s infamous Birth of a Nation (1915), a film that is highly controversial due to its legacy of innovative modern editing techniques combined with ridiculously racist overtones. The film was in fact commercially popular in its day, despite the NAACP’s largely unsuccessful attempt at launching a nationwide protest against it. Even though the efforts at banning the film were not successful, African Americans condemned Birth of a Nation, outraged at the grotesque portrayal of their race and also by the promotion of Ku Klux Klan ideals. Birth of a Nation was even used by the KKK as a recruiting tool. I came across this interactive timeline on the NAACP website that delineates the efforts put in to stop this film from being broadcast across the nation: NAACP Interactive Timeline

I also found an opinion piece entitled "Birth of a Nation: The Most Preposterous Adversary of the Negro Race of the Twentieth Century" in the Chicago Defender from October 2, 1915 that clearly defines why the film is so deeply troubling:

“The entire picture is one for the purpose of creating race prejudice and in it is seen a complete exaggeration of history… There was actually no such thing as a black domination in the South. This picture is shown simply to create prejudice and stir up stride and it is beyond my reason to find how the great men and women of my race and of this great metropolis can rest contented and submit to such an indignity.” –Evans Ford (The Chicago Defender Article)

Obviously, I knew that the film is considered controversial today, but I was unaware of the scope that the backlash against Birth of a Nation had at the time of its release. Taking all of this into consideration, I also had not heard about Oscar Micheaux, and I was really intrigued by him because he chose to challenge Griffith. Within Our Gates (1920) was a direct response to the crude, prejudiced stereotypes found in Birth of a Nation. He truly was able to use the rise of the motion picture industry to his advantage. The rise of his films injected the black perspective into American consciousness, and cinema served as an advanced way to communicate the stories to the public that were not being told. Rather than using it as a way to spread hateful messages, I feel that Micheaux’s legacy was such an important step in utilizing a huge strength that the medium of film possesses: making issues seen in the public eye.

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