Black Film Center/Archive Centennial Symposium: The Birth of a Nation

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Black Film Center/Archive Centennial Symposium: The Birth of a Nation

  1. Thursday, November 12, 2015 6:30 p.m.
The_Birth_of_a_Nation
Members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People picket under the marquee of the Republic Movie Theatre against race discrimination featured in the movie, The Birth of a Nation. They carry signs asking for a ban on hate films. Flushing, New York, October 20, 1947. Image courtesy of © CORBIS.

The Black Film Center/Archive is leading "From Cinematic Past to Fast Forward Present: D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation—A Centennial Symposium," November 12–13, providing a contextual dialogue regarding “the most controversial motion picture of all time,” to assess its legacy in contemporary political, cultural, and transnational affairs, including race relations, immigration, Hollywood representations of race, and patriarchal formations.

As haunting, egregious and troublesome as it is, The Birth of a Nation cannot simply be relegated to the past as long as our nation continues to grapple with the complicated issue of racism, its deeply entrenched roots and its numerous modern-day manifestations. Its objectionable content is undeniable, but many political, historical and cultural scholars agree that the time is ripe to shed light on this cautionary tale, the challenging issues it raises and what it means in terms of past and present race relations.


The year 2015 marks the centennial of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, “the most controversial motion picture of all time.” This symposium, sponsored by the Black Film Center/Archive, co-sponsored by The Media School and Indiana University Cinema, and supported by grants from New Frontiers/New Currents, College of Arts and Humanities Institute, and the Ostrom program is not a celebration of The Birth of a Nation, but rather will assess the legacy and relevance of The Birth of a Nation to transnational, political, and cultural affairs in the contemporary period. Comprised of keynote addresses by internationally distinguished historians and film scholars, three panels, and a roundtable devoted to pedagogical considerations, along with a screening of The Birth of a Nation at Indiana University Cinema, the symposium will discern the film’s utility to ideological accounts of historical activity. In doing so, it will illume contemporary issues in race relations, immigration policy, and Hollywood representations of race and patriarchy in American society.

Nothwithstanding acclaim for its artistic innovations, The Birth of a Nation engendered controversy and indignation because it elevated white supremacy and patriarchy to existential cause while fashioning a racist regime of historical memory.

"Indeed despite its claims to reality and truth, Birth is fundamentally a film about memory and the egregious distortion of history whose purpose is not to offer a [factually] objective view of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction but to socially, culturally, ideologically, and historically legitimize and valorize a racial hierarchy rooted in the presumption of white superiority. It relies upon the nature and function of memory to perform its emotive and seductive work ... , it lays claim to a kind of racial memory intended to provide a shared, yet wholly personal experience of whiteness, one that would be immediately and intimately familiar and recognizable to its intended audience. In its strategic employment of character, narrative, and plot ... the film labors to provide a collective memory rooted not in nationality or region but in race. (Michael T. Martin and David C. Wall, “Signifying Slavery in the History Film,” A Companion to the Historical Film, ed. Robert A Rosenstone and Constantin Parvulescu [Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013]: 446-47)

The film will be screened with live accompaniment provided by pianist Rodney Sauer. The 35mm print is preserved by the Museum of Modern Art with support from the Lillian Gish Trust for Film Preservation. Contains racially objectionable content. The screening of this film does not represent an endorsement of its subject matter. (35mm Presentation)

Related Links

Two-Day Symposium Page
Indiana University News Release
Lecture by Dr. Joy DeGruy
Hosted by Union Board, Dr. DeGruy presents a lecture titled Historical Trauma and Mental Health in the African American Community, Part II.

Rodney Sauer studied at the Oberlin Conservatory while majoring in chemistry at Oberlin College and has made a career in performing and recording dance and film music. He has researched historic practices of silent film orchestras, and his article on the history and use of “photoplay music” was published in the American Music Research Center Journal. While Sauer is best known for his work as director and score compiler for the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, a chamber quintet that revives the “library compilation” method used by silent film theater orchestras, he also improvises and composes music for silent films as a solo artist. With Mont Alto, Sauer has performed nationwide from Lincoln Center in Manhattan to Grauman’s Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, and he is a regular at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the Denver Silent Film Festival, and the Telluride Film Festival.