D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation: A History of the "Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time.".
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: McElya, Micki
Pub Date: 06/22/2010
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 4
Topic: NamedWork: D.W. Griffith's The Birth of A Nation: A History of the "Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time" (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Stokes, Melvyn
Accession Number: 230778713
Full Text: D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation: A History of the "Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time." By Melvyn Stokes (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. 432 pp.).

After petitions to the theater owner and city officials failed to stop a screening of The Birth of a Nation in New York City in 1921, members of the NAACP joined by three black women from the YWCA turned to direct action and picketed the opening. Thirty African American ex-servicemen in their uniforms distributed pamphlets detailing outrages committed by the Ku Klux Klan historically and in its contemporary incarnation, while the women held placards reading, "We Represented America in France, Why Should 'The Birth of a Nation' Misrepresent Us Here?" (236) When they refused to disperse, police arrested the sign-holding women and two others for obstructing the sidewalk. This incident in the history of organized protest against the film is one of many recounted in Melvyn Stokes's deeply researched new study of popular, organizational, and governmental responses to the "most controversial motion picture of all time" from its first showings in 1915 to the present.

Blending the methodologies of social history and film history with the study of government regulation, movement organizing, and protest, Stokes crafts a broad synthesis of the film's reception and cultural and political impacts. He traces the effects of D. W Griffith's terribly enduring epic of the Civil War and Reconstruction as it "changed the history of American cinema," brought about a "revolution in American moviegoing," and seared the popular imagination with images of white women in danger, black deviance and corruption, and heroic white supremacist violence (3). While many have noted the film's role in facilitating the rapid growth of the Second Klan, Stokes argues that protests like the one described above helped to bring the NAACP to wide popular attention as advocates for the rights of black Americans, increasing the organization's membership and national influence. At the same time, he suggests, persistent setbacks led some to embrace more radical direct action tactics. Beginning his story with the film's Los Angeles premier on February 8, 1915, Stokes notes that many in the audience of 2500 must have been buzzing about the fact that the afternoon showing of the film had been stopped by a court injunction won by the NAACP. Readers only find out how this extremely limited victory was achieved in the sixth chapter, however, one of several instances in which the thematic organization of Stokes's book breaks the momentum and clarity of his narrative. Structural concerns aside, the real strength of this work is in its details and Stokes's ability to reconstruct the experience of going to a theater to see The Birth of a Nation or to the censorship boards, courts, and streets to protest it. The filmic text itself is little analyzed by Stokes; the author instead provides an extensive review of the large and varied literature on the subject. His focus is on how the film was marketed, how audiences experienced it--from their theater surroundings and the cost of tickets to being shown to their seats by ushers in period costumes and hearing the film's score--and how they were transformed, thrilled, moved, or enraged by it.

The depth and reach of Stokes's research reveals some true historical gems, disturbing and clear windows onto the history of racism, representation, popular culture, and social change in the twentieth-century United States. In the midst of the violence in Little Rock, Arkansas that exploded with the desegregation of Central High School in 1957, he tells us, city residents could visit a downtown movie theater to see The Birth of a Nation (249). Stokes highlights the social and political consequences and the persistent reactionary quality of Griffith's toxic imagery and warped historical narrative. This book is an invaluable resource both for those new to the study of The Birth of a Nation as well as those of us who thought we already understood well the history of this film.

Micki McElya

University of Connecticut
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.