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  • Melvyn Stokes (a1)

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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1 Melvyn Stokes, D. W. Griffith's “The Birth of a Nation”: A History of “The Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), particularly 218–21.

2 John Cuniberti, “The Birth of a Nation”: A Formal Shot-by-Shot Analysis Together with Microfiche (Woodbridge, CT: Research Publications, 1979), 166–67.

3 Karl Brown, assistant cameraman on the film, maintained in a 1975 interview that “no sequences were in black and white … everything carried some sort of tint.” Cuniberti, 19, n. 31.

4 Griffith, D. W. to the Editor, Sight and Sound 16 (Spring 1947): 32.

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The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era
  • ISSN: 1537-7814
  • EISSN: 1943-3557
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-the-gilded-age-and-progressive-era
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