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The Birth of a Nation By Harley, Jeremy

DOI: 10.4324/9781135000356-REM306-1
Published: 09/05/2016
Retrieved: 17 April 2024, from


One of the most watched and debated American films in history, The Birth of a Nation is a 1915 silent film by D. W. Griffith known equally for its cinematic innovation and the controversy it caused. The story is based on written works by Thomas Dixon Jr., which aimed to refute the preeminent narrative on race at the time: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). Opening in the pre-Civil War era and continuing through Reconstruction, The Birth of a Nation depicts the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic group indispensible in protecting white society from black infiltration. Over three hours long and with a budget of $100,000, its length and budget significantly exceeded any previous American film. Groundbreaking not only in scope and visual technique, it was the first film to be distributed with a uniquely compiled score. Modernist filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin cited Griffith as having influenced their montage technique (Baldwin 2002: 65), although Eisenstein decried the idea of forgiving the film’s racism in light of its cinematic value (Platt 1992: 81).

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Harley, Jeremy. The Birth of a Nation. Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism, Taylor and Francis,

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