28 January 2016
D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915)
If you know anything about D.W. Griffith’s original film “Birth of a Nation” (1915) then you will understand why Nate Parker’s alternative rendering deserves an ovation. Maximizing on white paranoia, DW Griffith’s 1915 film earned acclaim and applause for its falsified depiction of the Reconstruction era. Depicting black men as dangerous rapists lusting ferociously after white women and offering the Ku Klux Klan as the solution to this “black tyranny,” Griffith’s film was a grotesque example of the kind of bile and bigotry that betrayed the American psyche. On March 21, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson attended a special screening at the White House. After screening the film Wilson exclaimed: “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Riots metastasized across several cities including Boston and Philadelphia among others. In some cities, white gangs roamed the city looking attacking black citizen. Thomas Dixon whose novel, The Clansman, served as the inspiration for Griffith’s film confessed: “The real purpose of my film,” he confessed gleefully, “was to revolutionize Northern audiences that would transform every man into a Southern partisan for life.”
Why is Nate Parker’s cinematographic rendering under the same title, “Birth of a Nation,” important for contemporary audiences?
In the wake of films like 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained, Nate Parker, who directed, produced, and starred in the film, took the onus upon himself to a bring an alternative and more daring slave narrative to the screen. This narrative is one of resistance; one that doesn’t include acquiescence or resignation to the whip and chain. Radical resistance narratives of this ilk are often overlooked as first priority narratives by big studios because they don’t agree with the dominant epistemology surrounding the antebellum period. In lieu of this, Parker used his own resources to finance a film whose success was not guaranteed. After a successful premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Parker inked a $17.5mil distribution deal with Fox Searchlight.
In the wake of #OscarsSoWhite controversy and at a moment when black men and women are routinely rendered prone, Parker is providing a new trajectory through film that is bringing back to popular remembrance the legacies of black men like Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser, and the brothers of the Stono rebellion who sought to fight their way out of enslavement. Their stories are sill waiting to be brought to bear.