Most years I teach a course called “American History through Hollywood Film.” One of the movies I use for teaching is The Birth of a Nation. This year, in the exam at the end of the course, I asked my students to comment on a particular clip from the film: the scene of the fight in the saloon in which the muscular white blacksmith Jeff (Wallace Reid) battles a group of African Americans and beats them all in a brawl before he is shot in the back. What I expected from the students were some comments on the linkage between alcohol and race, together with a discussion of the wider historical resonances of the sequence, particularly those associated with black boxer Jack Johnson and the attempts to find a “great white hope” able to seize his crown as, since 1908, heavyweight champion of the world. What I got were a number of further suggestions relating to class as well as race that made me want to rethink, at least to some extent, the analysis of this sequence I gave in my 2007 book.
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