Birth of An Answer (BOAA) was a deservedly defiant and resounding response, even though the insulting ‘question’ was posed a century back. The recent conference took aim at the film Birth of a Nation.
In 1915, D.W. Griffith’s technical marvel Birth of a Nation opened to a generally ecstatic popular reception, remaining the box office champ until 1937’s Snow White. Griffith was the inventor of cinematic conventions that still shape movies worldwide today. Unfortunately, Griffith was also a polished purveyor of the virulent racism of his era, drawing on Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman as his literary source. More perceptive movie-goers, even then, were horrified rather than ecstatic. And a century later, filmmakers, artists and scholars are still fighting back against the film’s racism, which lingers in our cultural bloodstream post-infectiously, flaring up in the ‘body politic’ all too often.
On September 18, Old Dominion University hosted a conference on African American responses to the film, beginning with black director Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1920) and continuing to the present.
Former NSU (now ODU) Professor of Music Adolphus Hailstork wrote a new score for Micheaux’s film which was screened and performed at the Attucks Theater, featuring the Harlem Quartet and members of the I. Sherman Greene Chorale (including NSU Prof. Patricia Nixon). The screening, attended by NSU Professors Charles Ford (also President of the Norfolk Chamber Consort, a co-sponsoring organization), Stephanie Richmond, Cassandra Newby-Alexander, William Alexander, Cathy Jackson, Page Laws and others, was followed by a panel moderated by film critic Mike Sargent and featuring Melvin Van Peebles (father of Blaxploitation films), Zeinabu Irene Davis, Michael Swanson and NSU Alumnus Tim Reid.
Earlier in the day on the campus of ODU, Dr. Laws, dean of the NSU Honors College, presented a conference paper entitled “The Hunt for Dishonest D.W. [Griffith]’: Kevin Willmott’s Parody of Birth of a Nation in CSA: The Confederate States of America (2004).” Willmott’s ‘mockumentary’ portrays an alternate world in which the South has won the Civil War and slavery is still both legal and widespread. Willmott is also the screenwriter of Spike Lee’s upcoming film Chi-Raq, about guns in Chicago.
Co-sponsors of the Birth of an Answer conference and Attucks event also included the City of Norfolk, the Virginia Arts Festival and WHRO.