In a section of my current book project on the D. W. Griffith film, The Birth of a Nation, I will be interrogating the notion of the plantation trope, if you will, as it appears in the first scenes of the film. Many early-twentieth century musings on this subject are clear reflections of a romanticized “Old South” plantation life that conjured up images of the benevolent white patriarch and the happy but simple-minded darky.
Griffith enlisted the film medium to enshrine this mythos as visual…or if you like, living history. And he is in near perfect step with a prevailing white sentiment concerning the antebellum South that took root with the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War and spread to a national audience by the end of the nineteenth century. While there are a number of notable exceptions – groups and individuals who rejected the film’s interpretive bent, I question how such a sectional narrative took hold and captured the imaginations of (and “historically” educated) a national audience.
In an effort to move beyond insular academic circles and engage the general public on the idea of visual representations of history, I ask: what cultural, ideological, and intellectual tendencies informed the “making” of The Birth of a Nation?
Of course, such a question can get tricky – so I welcome all comments and suggestions in the comment section below. This week, I will be working on so-called scientific studies that supported the racist sensibilities running throughout the film.
The Fine Arts Studio, also know as the Majestic-Reliance Studios, was once located at 4516 Sunset Blvd in Hollywood – near the confluence of Sunset and Hollywood Blvds. Not much of interest is going on there now…mostly drug stores and grocery stores and parking lots. But once upon a time, it was D. W. Griffith’s primary studio, where he shot much of his epic The Birth of a Nation. I drive by the spot from time to time – when I need to feel inspired to write about this film. Here’s a modern bird’s eye view, which will give you an idea of what has become of this neighborhood…so significant to film history .
If you are watching The Birth of a Nation and you are wondering why the battlefield near Petersburg does not look much like Virginia it’s because 1) you have a keen eye and 2) it’s Burbank, California.
I was hiking in the Hollywood Hills the other day and came up on a good vista of the area – now Forest Lawn Cemetery. Much of the scene pictured in the immediate foreground was the Petersburg “set,” which stretched for several miles. Griffith oversaw the scenes from a tower and shouted direction – big megaphone in hand: just as you might imagine a silent film director would look, sans the jodhpurs.
So we have Virginia with chaparral – odd to be sure. Sometimes you have to work with what you’ve got!
I have recently been engaged in a re-read of Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman – the novel that inspired D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.
This book is undeniably racist. But riddle me this. Is Dixon writing with historical accuracy from his perspective or intentionally manipulating history with an eye toward a cultural/political agenda? I’ve heard both sides of the argument – generally the latter. Thoughts?
Nearly 100 years ago, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation opened to great fanfare at William “Billy” Clune’s Auditorium on the north/east corner of 5th and Olive Street in downtown Los Angeles – across from Pershing Square. Pictured above, the auditorium boasted 2,500 seats. Before it’s reign as a premier movie house in the teens and twenties, the building had served pious Angelenos as a church. In the 1930s, it became home to the LA Philharmonic and LA Symphony. When planned renovations fell through the in 1980s, the structure was demolished to make way for an office building, which, by the way, also failed. Today the corner is a parking lot.