Please join the Chicago Film Seminar at 6:30 pm on Thursday, April 10 to welcome Allyson Nadia Field (UCLA) for her talk, "Fixing The Birth of a Nation: Hampton Institute, The New Era, and the Ambiguities of Uplift." Cynthia Blair (UIC) will provide the response. The CFS will be held at a new location--Notre Dame's Loop Campus at 224 S. Michigan Ave. (the room number and entrance instructions will be forthcoming).
Thursday, April 10 at 6:30pm
Allyson Nadia Field, UCLA
"Fixing The Birth of a Nation: Hampton Institute, The New Era, and the Ambiguities of Uplift"
Respondent: Cynthia Blair, UIC
Field describes her talk as follows:
This talk considers the intersection of African American uplift cinema and The Birth of a Nation. In April 1915, when The Birth of a Nation had its Boston premiere, it was met with strong protest from African Americans and those supportive of the "Negro cause." To appease protestors (and the censors), the Griffith camp not only made several cuts but, more importantly, two additions: first inserting a "screen record" in the form of educational slides in the film, and later appending an epilogue, The New Era, made from a Hampton Institute publicity film titled Making Negro Lives Count. Though the film is now lost, the debate over The New Era marks an unlikely turning point in questions of the cinematic promotion of African American modernization in the 1910s, and a key move away from the legacy of uplift that Hampton exemplified. While Griffith's reasons for being interested in the additional footage are fairly straightforward, what is less obvious is why Hampton--one of the leading agricultural and industrial colleges for African Americans--would have wanted to be associated with such a controversial and virulently racist film like The Birth of a Nation. Indeed, Hampton's participation in this project, and their seeming complicity with Griffith's work, was quickly met with withering and long-lasting criticism from African American leaders, women's groups, and the press. This talk explores the reasons behind Hampton's decision, arguing that the placement of The New Era at the end of The Birth of a Nation fit into a broader logic of cinematic practices associated with uplift. At the same time, the episode exposed deep fissures in those practices, displaying the power and limits of uplift as a political and aesthetic strategy. Excavating this seemingly lost history reveals forces and tensions that would come to shape twentieth century Black cinema--a legacy that has never wholly escaped the complex impact of America's first blockbuster.