The Birth of a Nation and their posters

Last Fall, a new film about the 1831 Nat Turner Rebellion was released. It is entitled The Birth of a Nation, which was also the title of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film. It was critically acclaimed in festival showings, but received bad publicity and reviews. I have not seen it and cannot comment on the film itself.  This blog, like most of my blogs, concerns artifacts that tell a vivid backstory – in this case, of posters for the films.

I didn’t post it at the time, since the film had such a short run.  But the current Attorney General announced today that the Justice Office would not continue to pursue the Texas Voter ID Law. So, it is still appropriate to think about American political sensitivity and iconography.

I have seen 3 posters for the recent film – one shows the actor/director playing Turner in front of a crowd, one is a graphic take on the American flag, and the third, cited in a recent New York Times business section article, shows a poster for D. W. Griffith’s film with graffiti spray-painted “Nat Turner Lives.” All are referential, employing references to pre-existing image-based documents to set up a mental compare & contrast process.

The character leading the crowd design, which for me, at least, refers to Les Miz, established the film as about rebellion and part of a welcome group of films and television shows that tell 19th century American history from the alternative viewpoint of the enslaved or freed population. The purely graphic one (“in distribution this Fall”) is an American flag with a frieze of a crowd replacing the red stripes. Red paint streams down like blood. On a tattered blue field is the film title in a Declaration of Independence font.

The graffiti poster is especially interesting since it refers specifically to the equally controversial D. W. Griffith’s film from 1915. That The Birth of a Nation was based on an unabashedly pro-Confederacy novel, The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon. The poster shows a hooded rider on a rearing horse – the pose associated with heroic statuary. The figure is not clothed in the Klan’s white hood and cloak that renders anonymity. It is a Medieval helmet and heraldry look that, at the time, referred to Teutonic knights and Crusaders. The NYPL Digital Collection’s copy of that version of the original film’s poster includes the catch phrase “American Institution,” Griffith’s name, the title, and a positive review quote from the New York Mail, May 2, 1921.

The iconography on the original release souvenir program, another image in the Digital Collections, refers to civil war, small caps, but not to the novel’s point of view. It shows an explosion in front of a capitol dome – referring to 19th century America and civil unrest, if not the Civil War. It may have been more general to avoid giving away too much information. The Billy Rose Theatre Division’s copy of the souvenir brochure is from the Lillian Gish Papers, Papers and was published by the Epoch Producing Corp., 1915.

A similar iconography can be found in one of my favorite discoveries ever in the amazing silent film holdings of the Billy Rose Theatre Division. There is a small collection of gouache designs for film posters, probably from Fox Film Corp.’s New York promotion office. The design shows a capitol dome, but it radiates light and in front has an eagle bearing a wreathed laurel portrait of Abraham Lincoln.  The light, eagle and laurel wreath all represent a slain heroic leader and can be found on many war memorials.  This discovery was one of the artifacts that inspired our exhibition The Birth of Promotion, which investigated advertising, publicity and marketing in the silent film era.

I can tell myself that the only thing this artifacts really symbolizes is that poster designer did not have access to production information and had not seen the film or script. But thinking about these promotional designs – in the light of the 2016 director’s use of the 1915 title and the current political crises – made me want to celebrate the anonymous artist’s assumption that a film about the civil war should celebrate Lincoln.




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