Birth of the Nation: the reunion, and, answer

By Miah Harris

Students from Hampton University are to attend the "Birth of an Answer" event in Norfolk on Friday, Sept. 18, a forum recognizing the centennial of "The Birth of a Nation."

It could seem rude or uncouth to not acknowledge the original filmmakers who brought the realities of slavery and racism to life, especially in silence. One hundred years later, viewers were reintroduced to D.W. Griffith's, "The Birth of a Nation." Not only did this film set the tone for modern-day movie productions, the film was also a revisionist fantasy of the Reconstruction period.

African Americans were scripted to become dominant suspects to Southern whites, specifically as predators of white women. Critics said the film's deception could easily lead unaware audiences to believe any storyline built. Quite frankly, to some, it was humorously portrayed that way.

According to "The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow," a PBS documentary, when President Woodrow Wilson first saw the film in 1915, he reportedly said, "It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true."

As much as this film brutally brought many African Americans to tears, it surprisingly brought others (dominantly Northern Caucasians) to laughter. This not only led to riots, but even put the historic film in jeopardy of not being released in cities such as Chicago, Denver, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Minneapolis. Needless to say, Griffith's intense storyline and emotional reaction and response from society continues as a lifelong conversation.

Associate Professor Wayne Dawkins' book review of Dick Lehr's "The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America's Civil War," described Griffith's work as an "epic film of black denigration and Ku Klux Klan celebration."

Malik Jones, a Hampton U. student from Alpharetta, Ga., said, "This seems like it will be a very interesting event that will address some of the lingering questions behind Birth of a Nation and its impact on not only film as a medium, but the racial tensions and prejudices that are still relevant today."

"Birth of an Answer" Hampton University collaborators include Van Dora Williams, associate professor, journalism, and Eleanor Earl, assistant professor, cinema studies.

The writer is a student in the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications.

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