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  • Racist Film:Teaching The Birth of a Nation
  • Paul McEwan (bio)

The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, 1915) is all too seldom taught in film studies classes, given its centrality to the development of narrative film and its usefulness as an extreme filmic example of racial misrepresentation. I teach the film in my introductory class, in film history, in film theory, and in a special topics class on historical fiction films. While the film is the focus of my research and a text I find endlessly fascinating and disturbing, it obviously presents numerous challenges in a film classroom because of its virulently racist content. It is also a three-hour silent film that can be difficult to fit into screening schedules and challenging for entry-level students who generally have no experience with silent film. But the payoffs for teaching the film are well worth its challenges, and not because it is some kind of "classic" that needs to be appreciated. The film is one of the most effective tools I have for teaching ideological analyses of film, for understanding audience reception, and for considering the ways in which films can "tell" history.

Preparation is, of course, key for this film, since students need to be at least somewhat aware of what they are about to see. I tell them that this is a central text in the history of cinema, and that it brought together many of the techniques of narrative filmmaking that Griffith and others had been developing. At this point in the semester, my students have seen a range of silent films, have been taught the concept of the cinema of attractions, and are aware that Hollywood narrative techniques did not spring into existence fully formed. I also warn them that the film is one of the most racist things they will ever see, that it was the subject of protests in 1915, and that the history it purports to tell is an extremely biased one.

Some kind of balance is essential to this introduction, which I provide in class beforehand and in a handout that they receive by e-mail before the screening. In general, it is more important that they are prepared to see the film as racist rather than as a formal masterpiece, so that is what I emphasize. All of our screening choices are, on some level, endorsements of a given film–unless we go out of our way to convince the students otherwise. Students naturally assume that there is some lesson to be learned from each film, and in this case that lesson is primarily about racism and not about the history of silent cinema.

There is a risk, though, to overemphasizing the film's racism. In a continuing education class I taught at Northwestern some years ago, I had a much more diverse group of students than I have had in any of the more traditional classes I have taught since—a diversity of races, ages, and social backgrounds. Since I was trying to be careful about the racism in the film, and wanted to make it clear that I was not endorsing it, I explained more of the context at the beginning, including [End Page 98] the fact that the film had been used as a recruiting film by the KKK.1 At the end of my introduction, one African American student asked me "why do we have to watch a Klan recruiting film in this class?"

Her question got at the heart of my reasons for using this film. I backtracked somewhat, explaining more about its significance as a milestone of narrative, and also about my motivations for providing a lesson in the particularities of early twentieth-century racism and the centrality of mediated images to that racism. She was moderately satisfied with the answer, but there was no escaping the fundamental issue: as an African American woman living in Chicago, she did not need any lessons in racism, least of all from me, a white Canadian ten years her junior. My primary reason for teaching this film—to give students a sense of the depths of American racism—does not apply to every student.

Even a...


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