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Mini-Symposium on Oliver Stone and D. W. Griffith
By the Reel American History class, Lehigh University, July 2010

Teacher's note: As a class, we seemed to support the goal and methods of Oliver Stone in JFK. We did not feel the same way about D. W. Griffith (and Thomas Dixon) in Birth of a Nation? Why? Aren't the issues fundamentally the same? So why did we praise one and deride the other? I thought the juxtaposition of these two central films in reel American history might trigger meaningful reflection on some core issues in reel American history. And I asked the class to try capturing their thoughts in one paragraph. (Prof. Edward J. Gallagher)
Griffith and Dixon Duel with Their Critics: A Mini-Symposium on The Birth of a Nation
By the Reel American History class, Lehigh University, July 2010

Teacher's note: The Birth of a Nation is one of the most controversial films in our history, and D. W. Griffith and Thomas Dixon engaged in what we might call a newspaper and pamphlet war around its opening, energetically defending their work from their critics. Here our class tries to focus on some of the rhetorical strategies employed by both sides in these duels. (Prof. Edward J. Gallagher)
The Birth of a Nation Debate: The Talking Points
By the Literature Seminar for Freshmen, Lehigh University, October 2010

Teacher's note: What specific points did such critics of Birth of a Nation as the New York Globe, Rolfe Cobleigh, and Francis Hackett use to attack the film? And what specific points did D. W. Griffith, Thomas Dixon, and such supporters as Charles Parkhurst use to defend it? Our class provides an annotated list of the issues and arguments advanced by both sides in the debate. This section differs from the previous one by focusing on the facts, the content, rather than the strategies. Users can glance down the page and quickly grasp the "talking points" as well as seeing them embodied in the actual words of the combatants. (Prof. Edward J. Gallagher)...
White Knight, Dark Knight & Directorial Defenses
By Lynn Farley

I was casually browsing Yahoo’s home page today and came across this headline: LONDON (AP) — Director Christopher Nolan is defending fans irate over negative reviews of "The Dark Knight Rises ." Had I been reading a paper 98 years ago, the only difference in this news might have been a simple substitution of the director’s name and picture’s title with D. W. Griffith and The Birth of a Nation. Something in me “clicked,” and I decided to learn more about director Christopher Nolan’s defense to see if there was a possible link between his troubles and those of his cinematic great-great-director Mr. Griffith. This unplanned diversion into Batman’s world connected the dots for me between Griffith’s...
Dixon’s Clansman vs. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation
By Aaron Baek, with comments by Nicholas Alakel and Katherine Prosswimmer

Thomas Dixon, author of the controversial but successful novel The Clansman (1905), has been eulogized as the author of the greatest novel about the Reconstruction era or criticized as a racist for distorting the facts of history to suit his racial prejudices. Nevertheless, the success of his novel was guaranteed when it was turned into the highly esteemed Birth of a Nation (1915) under the direction of D.W. Griffith. The works of both Griffith and Dixon parallel each other, and such critics as Jeffrey Martin even come close to attacking Griffith for his unoriginality:...
Right-Mindedness and Racism: Dixon and Griffith Take on the New York Globe
By Ed Tabor, with comment by Sarah Ballan

On the April 6th 1915, the editor of the New York Globe rhetorically asked whether it is in the best interest of the country to allow the viewing of The Birth of A Nation. The editor argues that the film misrepresents history, promotes racism, and encourages disunity in the nation. The editor brings forth the question by appealing to the down-to-earth logic of the “right-minded person.” Yet both Clansman author Thomas Dixon and Birth director D.W. Griffith take issue with the editorial. Through the use of tricky rhetorical techniques and questionable sources, Dixon and Griffith present their defense of the film. Of most interest, is the communication that exists between the three...
Birth of the “Black Rapist”
By Kiera Berkemeyer, with comments by Katherine Prosswimmer and Sarah Ballan

In 1915 D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation exploded from the screen and projected its way into the minds of people across the nation. The majority of viewers were impressed by the film and all that it accomplished. Many delighted in the film’s “extraordinary pictures” coupled with its “historical faithfulness.” Yet other critics maintained that it was a “monstrous perversion of history” (The Independent 21). So who is right? Was this film an accurate portrayal of the Civil War and the events after it? Or was history somehow corrupted by racist values? The fear of miscegenation is a theme that helps to answer these questions.
Griffith and Dixon Take on the Globe
By Sarah Ballan, with comments by Ed Tabor, Harrison Lawrence, and Lynn Farley

The New York Globe did not have many positive things to say about the Birth of a Nation. To sum it up, the editorial printed in the paper in April 1915 expressed an overall feeling of disgust towards the controversial film. To start off, the editor is unsettled by the name of the film: “The very name of The Birth of a Nation is an insult to Washington,” who is the founder of our nation and is credited to this day for uniting our country. The editor disagrees with the way both blacks and whites are portrayed in the storyline. He is especially bothered by the way they are depicted during the Reconstruction era. When slavery ended, many of the freedmen had been slaves their entire lives. They were...
Another Side to Reconstruction: The Dunning School of Thought
By Lyndsey Collins, with comments by Adrianna Abreu and Jena Viviano

All history is socially constructed; the same event or time period can be interpreted in various ways depending on the individual or group. The Reconstruction period (1865-1877) was a time of victory and political triumph for Northerners. White Southerners, however, perceived the Reconstruction period in a drastically different way. Instead of using words like triumph and victory, Southerners described the Reconstruction period as corrupt and evil. Instead of calling it the Reconstruction era, it became known as the “Tragic Era” by white Southerners. William Archibald Dunning, creator of the Dunning School of Thought, claimed that Reconstruction was a “radical republican scheme, motivated by hatred of white southerners, to...
Parkhurst and Dixon: They can't both be right, but they can both be wrong
By Pat O'Brien, with comment by Ed Tabor

It’s interesting that Thomas Dixon and Charles Parkhurst, both defenders of Birth of a Nation, could have such different readings of the same movie. As Lauren Calabrese points out in her essay on Rolfe Cobleigh’s review of the film, Dixon stated to Cobliegh that "one purpose of the play was to create a feeling of abhorrence in white people, especially white women against colored men . . . his desire was to prevent the mixing of white and Negro blood by intermarriage,” which, to this observer, seems to be an acknowledgement that he does see a depiction of Negroes that would incite such sentiment (more on that later!). Parkhurst, echoing sentiments made by D.W. Griffith in defense of his own film, argues that...
Blacks vs. Birth of a Nation: The Political Response
By Kelsey Lee, with comments by Taara Ness-Cochinwala and Jonathan Zubkoff

In 1915, D.W. Griffith stunned America with the release of Birth of a Nation. This silent film was groundbreaking in that it included unusual camera shots, night photography, battle scenes, and an unfaltering tempo. While nickelodeon two-reelers were common at the time, this technical masterpiece was a remarkable twelve reels—three times as long as any other film of the day. For the first time, a motion picture charged $2.00 per ticket, and Birth of a Nation quickly became the highest-grossing film of the silent film era. But as successful and powerful as this film was, it was equally as controversial and resented. Considered “The Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time,” Griffith’s masterpiece was...
The Negro as a Beast: The Racial Climate in Griffith’s Time
By Erin Meinert, with comments by Samuel Olsen and Taylor Kite

America’s racial climate in the early 1900s as depicted by Charles Carroll in his work The Negro a Beast (1900) is atrocious, unnerving, and irrefutably racist. He defends the low social status of African Americans on the grounds that their place within society is modernly, biblically, and scientifically supported and appropriate. The book opens with this short poem that crystallizes Carroll’s heavily biased view of blacks: “The Negro a beast, but created with articulate speech / and hands, that he may be of service to his master / —the White man” (Carroll 1). He also examines the Negroes and their physical and emotional being according to his own beliefs along with...
The Myth of the Lost Cause
By Rachel Brooks, with comment by Ed Tabor and Lynn Farley

Once the Civil War finally ended, the South was left embarrassed and ruined. The North no longer had any respect for the South; the Northerners viewed the Southerners as inhumane and insensitive. The myth of the Lost Cause was then created to help the South regain its strength and dignity. This myth consisted of false statements about the causes and outcomes of the war. The Lost Cause was the product of many books and articles right after the war ended. Gary G. Gallagher explains that although the Lost Cause was born from a range of sources, all of the creators wanted to “find something positive in all-encompassing failure.” Their motive was to provide a “correct” interpretation of the war for their children and all Southerners...
Witchcraft in the Birth of a Nation Debate
By Jaeyong Shim

Birth of Nation was reprimanded for presenting false images about African Americans being savage. Because of its controversial contents, Representative Lewis R. Sullivan introduced a bill that restricted the production of "show or entertainment which tends to excite racial or religious prejudice or tends to a breach of the public peace." In “Defense of the Sullivan Bill,” D.W. Griffith and Thomas Dixon brought up the freedom of speech stated in the U.S. Constitution that might be violated by the legislation.
Enduring Birth of a Nation
By Harrison Lawrence

I took a look at the sides that were taken regarding the racial morality of Griffith’s work. The articles included two anti-Birth of a Nation write-ups and one pro-Griffith reading. Rolfe Cobleigh’s “Why I Opposed Birth of a Nation” featured an interview Cobleigh hosted with Thomas Dixon. Cobleigh at the time of the interview had not seen the 3-hour epic but had read several reviews and articles that spoke heavily about the use of heavy racial prejudices and stereotypes throughout the film. When Cobleigh asked what the main purpose was in the play, Dixon responded, “to teach the people of the United States, especially the children, that the true history of the Reconstruction period was as it was...
Wordplay: Griffith's Case for the Defense
By Katherine Prosswimmer, with comments by Lynn Farley

I focused on Griffith and Dixon’s defense of their movie and their argument against the Sullivan Bill, which would enforce censorship of any “show or entertainment which tends to excite racial or religious prejudice or tends to a breach of the public peace.” Not surprisingly, Griffith and Dixon vehemently oppose the bill. While it is clear that Griffith and Dixon’s portrayal of the civil war and Reconstruction elicited a strong negative reaction from many viewers, the two argue that the Sullivan Bill would violate their freedom of speech. I found their arguments to be quite fascinating. While the fundamental points of their arguments are sound, much of what Griffith and Dixon argue suggests either that they don’t fully...
The Image of Lincoln as an Instrument throughout History
By Lauren Hochman, with comment by Taara Ness-Cochinwala

Melvyn Stokes’ “Griffith’s View of History” discusses the role of the Lincoln image in history as well as its context in D. W. Griffith’s film play Birth of a Nation. Stokes explores the historical roots of the Lincoln image and traces its lineage through particular writers who have contributed to the molding and crafting of the vision we recall, even today, when the name Lincoln comes to mind. Surprisingly, Stokes proves that our present-day opinions of Lincoln are not consistent with the nation’s thoughts of him immediately after his assassination. Our country’s love of Lincoln has grown from seeds planted by writers in biography sections of magazines and sprouted through our personal encounters via film. Our...
A Response Equal in Eloquence and Power
By Eric Weiss, with comment by Jaeyong Shim

The film Birth of a Nation (1915) directed by D.W Griffith was the first to incite outrage within America. Amidst international and political struggle in the early 20th century, one movie uncovered the strife within our own walls. The technological aspect of the moving picture was unprecedented for its time, and the ripples of its profound impact can still be felt in America today. The most virulent political responses to the film took form in debates over censorship; yet no laws could counter the film more efficiently than another film. In this case the artistic response to Birth of a Nation was a film directed and produced by black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux titled Within Our Gates (1919). The plot...
The Three Klans
By Danielle Albergo, with comments by Ed Tabor and Pat O'Brien

This is an institution of chivalry, humanity, mercy, and patriotism; embodying in its genius and its principles all that is chivalric in conduct, noble in sentiment, generous in manhood, and patriotic in purpose; its peculiar objects being: ...
The Impossible Debate
By Michael Ronan, with comments by Anthony Pascale and Nicholas Alakel

D.W. Griffith, “pioneer of prejudice” or “creative master of the screen”? The Birth of a Nation is still hotly contested as one of the more controversial films in American cinema history. Now almost ninety years after its first appearance it sparks debate just at it did in 1947, when in the autumn issue of Sight and Sound, Peter Noble attacked Griffith with his article “A Note on an Idol.” Noble bases his assault on the fact that The Birth of a Nation, Griffith’s masterpiece, is “the first important movie to devote much of its length to an attack on Negroes.” Griffith quickly replied with a response letter in which he states, “I gave to my best knowledge the proven facts, and...