Most who are going to see Nate Parker’s “Birth of a Nation” are familiar with the film’s plot: Parker portrays Nat Turner, a literate slave who orchestrates a bloody rebellion against slavery. While Parker says it’s “based on a true story,” what some might not know is that he took the film’s name from a 1915 film that was Ku Klux Klan propaganda.
The original “Birth of a Nation” was directed by D.W. Griffith, the son of a confederate soldier. Griffith based his film on “The Clansman,” a book by Thomas Dixon. Not surprisingly, the writer’s father was involved in the KKK. At the time, the film was a huge success, though even then it stirred controversy. For one, it depicts black men as unintelligent and sexually aggressive toward white women.
There was no coincidence when Parker chose to call his movie “Birth of a Nation.” He made the decision before he wrote the script's dialogue.
One of the reasons he decided to do this is because Parker doesn’t think Griffith should be renowned in the film industry. “Why is it important that D.W. Griffith-- that we-- that we-- that we recognize what he did to Hollywood?” Parker told Anderson Cooper on "60 Minutes," according to a transcript on CBS News.
Parker explained why he’s repurposing the name. “In the same way that I’m reclaiming the title, I’m reclaiming a hero. You know, Nat Turner, 'Birth of a Nation' of resistors. Of people that were truly willing to die for absolute freedom and liberation,” he said.
Ruby Rich, professor of Film & Digital Media and Social Documentation at UC Santa Cruz, said while Park’s intention to reclaim the name “Birth of a Nation” is reasonable, it might not happen. “I don’t know to what extent it’s possible to redeem something as poisonous as ‘Birth of a Nation,’ but I can understand why someone would want to try,” she told International Business Times in a phone interview Thursday.
Rich then talked about the impact Griffith’s film has had on the movie industry: “It’s one of those unfortunate combos of great aesthetic power with evil political agenda.”
She confirmed Griffith’s intention was to make “Birth of a Nation” ask KKK propaganda. “Griffith knew exactly what he was doing,” she said. “I think it was intended as a propaganda vehicle.”
One thing Parker wanted was to make sure his “Birth of a Nation” made it into theaters. He turned down money from streaming services like Netflix and Amazon because he wanted it to be shown as a feature film, Rich noted.
“I think the film is intended for a mass audience,” Rich said. “He wanted it in movie theaters. I think in many ways it reads that way. It’s an action movie with strange romance against the backdrop of slavery.”
“Birth of a Nation” premieres in theaters nationwide Friday, Oct. 7.
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