Press Release: Symposium to feature scholars, panels, The Birth of a Nation screening

The Media School Report • Nov. 4, 2015
Karen Land
IU Communications

Nov. 4, 2015

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The IU Black Film Center/Archive will sponsor From Cinematic Past to Fast Forward Present: D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation: A Centennial Symposium, Nov. 12 and 13.

“This is not a celebration,” said Michael T. Martin, director of the Black Film Center/Archive. “The film is not being shown for entertainment purposes, but rather as an educational tool that both reflects on the past and resonates today in regard to race relations.”

The symposium will be an academic inquiry that adds to contemporary scholarship on the film. Its intentions align with those of events held in 2015 at other institutions, including In the Shadow of The Birth of a Nation at University College London and The Birth of an Answer at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.

National and international scholars will gather at Indiana University to address  The Birth of a Nation in three key contexts:

  • Panelists will first consider how the film was received at home and abroad at the time of its release in 1915 and in the decades that followed.
  • A second panel will examine how themes from The Birth of a Nation have been recycled in contemporary Hollywood films such as 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained.
  • The final discussion will address the film’s collateral and ideological aftereffects a full century later.

IU faculty members Akin Adesokan, Cara Caddoo, Terri Francis and Alex Lichtenstein and doctoral student Andy Uhrich will participate in panel discussions, joined by Martin and other national and international experts.

The keynote speakers for the free symposium will be distinguished film history scholars Melvyn Stokes and Linda Williams.

Stokes will speak on the topic of “Transnational and Historical Perspectives” at 9:30 a.m. Nov. 12 at Indiana University Cinema. He is a professor of American history and cinematic history at University College of London and the author of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation: A History of the Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time.

Williams will speak about “Melodramas of Black and White and Early Race Filmmaking” at 2 p.m. Nov. 13 at the Faculty Room of the University Club in the Indiana Memorial Union. She is a professor emerita in film and media at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson.

A full schedule is posted on the From Cinematic Past to Fast Forward Present symposium website.

Symposium screening

As an integral part of the two-day academic symposium, The Birth of a Nation will be screened at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 12 at IU Cinema. The screening is free and open to the public, but due to the racially offensive content of the film, discretion is advised.

D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film follows two intertwining families from the North and the South during the Civil War and its aftermath. Originally titled The Clansman, the outrageously racist epic depicts black men as foolish criminals, while glorifying the Ku Klux Klan.

The Birth of a Nation is fundamentally a film about memory and the egregious distortion of history,” Martin said. “Its purpose was not to offer a factual view of the South during slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, but to socially and ideologically legitimize and valorize a racial hierarchy of white supremacy and patriarchy.”

Martin will briefly introduce the screening. The film will be presented in a 186-minute, 35mm print preserved by the Museum of Modern Art. Rodney Sauer of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will provide live, historically based piano accompaniment to the silent film. After the screening, Francis will join other panelists in a discussion moderated by Martin.

The Birth of a Nation is at once a means to revisit America’s cultural past in the first decades of the 20th century, and it is, too, a means to compare and assess where we are today in the struggle for racial justice and equality,” Martin said. “How can we comprehend the present and actual world by not interrogating how it came to be?”

Related events, sponsors

IU’s Black Graduate Student Association and Black Student Union will host a private, pre-symposium discussion with Eric Deggans, NPR TV critic and IU journalism graduate, on Nov. 10 at the Black Film Center/Archive.

From Cinematic Past to Fast Forward Present: D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, is sponsored by the Black Film Center/Archive in partnership with The Media School and IU Cinema. The symposium has received support from many co-sponsors within the university, including the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies, the Center for Research on Race and Ethnicity in Society, and The Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions. A complete list of sponsors and grant support appears online.

Additional support was provided by the College Arts and Humanities Institute, the College of Arts and Sciences Ostrom Program and the New Frontiers in the Arts and Humanities Program, all at Indiana University. A program of the Office of the Vice President for Research, the New Frontiers program is funded by the Office of the President.