The Problems—and Possibilities—for “Celebrating” Birth of a Nation at 100

This article was written by Arthur Knight. Knight is an Associate Professor of American Studies and English at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. 

Anniversaries are important.

When an anniversary crosses the magical threshold from double to triple digits, when ninety-nine flips to 100, an anniversary takes on added importance.

When an anniversary relates to a cultural institution like American cinema—the movies, which combine art with entertainment, hype with industry, and are woven so complexly into how so many of us experience and understand the world—it’s almost automatic to plan a celebration. And movie lovers love a party! A premiere with spotlights! A film festival!

I believe all of the above. And the celebratory glamour of the movies is definitely one of the reasons (though not the main one, I swear!) that I decided to dedicate my life to studying and teaching about film. And 1915 is indisputably a crucial year in the history of American—and world—cinema.

Still, the movie that makes 1915 so important—D.W. Griffith’s racist epic, Birth of a Nation—doesn’t warrant a celebration. So, what are movie lovers to do to mark this centennial? More generally, how should we understand—and what should we do with—Birth of a Nation, especially in our roles as teachers and cultivators and stewards of American history and memory?

I remember vividly my confusion on seeing Birth of a Nation early in the first film class I took in college, back in 1980 or ’81. (Just to give a little context: Ronald Reagan—a former movie star—was about to become President. Cable TV was still a novelty, not many people yet had a VCR, virtually no one had a personal computer, and the world wide web was still more than a decade in the future. To see a movie, you had go out to a theatre or hope it showed up on TV at a time you could watch.) That Birth of a Nation came so early in the class clearly implied that it was important, and the first sections of the movie made clear to me why that was so: the framing and editing were much more intricate and fluid than those of the early short films we had been seeing; the acting and characterizations were comparatively subtle, and some struck my nineteen-year-old self verging on “modern”; and the range and scope of the story were large and ambitious. But as soon as Black characters started to appear on screen, my confusion began. Not only were any Black characters with substantial roles played by white actors in blackface while background characters were played by African American performers, which struck me as weird (clearly, Black actors existed, so why couldn’t they play all the roles?), but any substantial Black characters were also thoroughly villainous.

When my classmates and I asked our professor about these strangenesses and imbalances, he told us that these were products of the era—conventions that wouldn’t have struck the film’s first audiences as noteworthy—and focused our attention back on Birth of a Nation’s formal innovations.

I wish I could say that I pressed my professor to further address these topics, but I didn’t. (To be fair to my professor, his answer to our queries was the dominant one of the time and, indeed, of the decades from the ‘30s to the ‘80s. And when I did start to press these questions a few years later as a graduate student, he was enthusiastically supportive.)

In the early ‘90s when I taught my first film classes, I was lucky. By then I could show Birth of a Nation, but also show Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) or Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle (1987) and make it clear that contemporary African American directors saw there was more at stake—and much more to talk about—in Birth of a Nation than its formal innovations. I could tell my students the story of Spike Lee’s first student film at NYU, “The Answer” (1980), which explicitly addressed, and criticized, Birth of a Nation. (Unfortunately, this film is no longer available for viewing.) And in 1992, we could discuss John Singleton’s nomination of Birth of a Nation for the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, which he explained this way: “I put the film on my list as a history lesson. Any young brother or sister who sees it now will get so charged up that they’ll feel they have to do something to change things. I put Birth of a Nation on the list because America, at its central heart, is a racist institution. It was founded on the blood, sweat, and tears of Black people.”

By the mid-‘90s, when I became a professor, I was even luckier. All the things I mentioned in the previous paragraph encouraged me and my students to respond critically to Birth of a Nation in ways my professor and I hadn’t been able to muster. But Lee, Townsend, Singleton and their films were all products of our era, not Birth of a Nation’s. They didn’t contradict my professor’s claim that in 1915 Birth of a Nation’s racism wouldn’t have been noticed. The rediscovery and restoration of pioneer African American director Oscar Micheaux’s lost 1919 film Within Our Gates did that contradicting. Here was a film that made clear that at least some people in the 1910s had emphatically different visions of race and film storytelling than Birth of a Nation.

And now in 2015, I feel even luckier as a film teacher and a movie lover. When I first started teaching Within Our Gates alongside Birth of a Nation twenty years ago, students often found Micheaux’s movie confusing. They certainly saw, with increasing clarity and historical understanding, Birth of a Nation’s racism, but they also saw it as a better—more competent, more exciting and engaging (even as they resisted its techniques for exciting and engaging them)—than Within Our Gates, which they often had trouble following.

But in recent years, that has changed. I am not sure what’s caused the change, but the past few times I’ve taught both films, my students “got” Within Our Gates and found it more exciting and innovative in its explorations of complex, contested, and shifting American identities than Birth of a Nation’s action plot focused on separating Black from white. And this last fall, for the first time ever, more of my students chose to write about Within Our Gates than Birth of a Nation or any of the other silent films we worked on!

So, for me, that’s what this 100th anniversary of 1915 is really a celebration of—the birth of an answer. And I cannot wait to gather with the community of the Tidewater in September to explore this birth and our region’s relation to it.