Cinema's Original Sin
D.W. Griffith, American Racism, and the Rise of Film Culture
272 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 x 1.20 in, 26 b&w photos
Sales Date: December 13, 2022
For over a century, cinephiles and film scholars have had to grapple with an ugly artifact that sits at the beginnings of film history. D. W. Griffith's profoundly racist epic, The Birth of a Nation, inspired controversy and protest at its 1915 release and was defended as both a true history of Reconstruction (although it was based on fiction) and a new achievement in cinematic art. Paul McEwan examines the long and shifting history of its reception, revealing how the film became not just a cinematic landmark but also an influential force in American aesthetics and intellectual life.
In every decade since 1915, filmmakers, museums, academics, programmers, and film fans have had to figure out how to deal with this troublesome object, and their choices have profoundly influenced both film culture and the notion that films can be works of art. Some critics tried to set aside the film's racism and concentrate on the form, while others tried to relegate that racism safely to the past. McEwan argues that from the earliest film retrospectives in the 1920s to the rise of remix culture in the present day, controversies about this film and its meaning have profoundly shaped our understandings of film, race, and art.
With an impressive scope and a novel approach, Cinema’s Original Sin contains many insights and details that even readers who are well-versed in American film history will find revelatory. If any reader came to the book with skepticism about The Birth of a Nation’s seemingly outsized role in the psyche of film studies, there’s no way to come away from this book without a deep—and haunting—understanding of its overlap with American cinema and cinema scholarship. It is a highly ambitious project that really delivers.~Allyson Nadia Field
Cinema’s Original Sin arrives at a moment when the need to grapple with the instruments of racism and their history has never been more pressing. It resolutely ties The Birth of a Nation to our present period of contestation and emerges all the stronger and more relevant for grappling with the challenges that this canonized work presents. Paul McEwan begins from the premise that Griffith’s masterwork underwrote arguments positioning motion pictures as more than mere entertainment; in so doing, he finds a novel way to retell the story of Birth’s tortured relationship to both art and race. That retelling renders this book pertinent and valuable.~Charlie Keil
Cinema’s Original Sin is a fascinating, authoritative, and essential text for anyone interested in film history, the history of racism and its on-going echoes, or examining the history of ongoing social conversations from the public, press, and academia...The Birth of a Nation is not a masterpiece. It’s well-executed propaganda. It’s time to call that out and acknowledge it, which Professor McEwan definitively does with flawless scholarship and inarguable logic. It’s an essential read and an essential contribution to numerous on-going cultural conversations.~Mastering Modernity
- 1. A New Art, 1895–1915
- 2. Film Art, Intolerance, and Oscar Micheaux, 1915–1925
- 3. Little Theatres, MOMA, and the Birth of Art Cinema, 1925–1945
- 4. From American History to Film History, 1945–1960
- 5. In Search of Legitimacy and Masterpieces: Film Studies in the Academy, 1960–2000
- 6. Race, Reception, and Remix in the New Millennium