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The Whole Staircase: Films Celebrating 400 Years of African American History & Culture

The Birth of a Nation (1915)poster for The Birth of a Nation

Dr. Gregory Shealy, professor of history, selected this film for inclusion in The Whole Staircase Film Series. Upon selecting this film, Dr. Shealy said, "D.W. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation (1915) revolutionized the nature of cinema.  Its cinematography led Mary Pickford to state that it was “the first picture that really made people take the motion picture industry seriously.” Until Gone With the Wind, it remained the most commercially successful film of all time. 

In addition to revolutionizing the use of the camera, it became a cultural phenomena that found widespread acceptance in American society. Woodrow Wilson screened it in the White House, the Los Angeles Times called it “The greatest picture ever made and the greatest drama ever filmed,” and audiences flocked to see it dressed in Klansmen robes. It contains a deeply racist message. It has been given credit with reviving the Ku Klux Klan and solidifying the Lost Cause Myth. 

Watching the second half of this silent film, this screening will discuss the ways in which film led to the marginalization of African Americans. This film is a masterpiece of evil and the discussion before and after the film will seek to uncover the ways in which this film reflected and informed the deeply troubled relationship between African Americans and Hollywood." 

Dr. Shealy earned his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.

Screening Dates and Locations

Screening of Part 1 (no presenter)

Date: October 10, 2019

Location: Palatka Campus Library

Time: 5:30 p.m.

Members of the Race Issues Study Circle will be in attendance. 

All are welcome to this free event!


Screening of Part 2 (no presenter)

Date: October 17, 2019

Location: Palatka Campus Library

Time: 5:30 p.m.

Members of the Race Issues Study Circle will be in attendance. 

All are welcome to this free event!


Screening presented by Dr. Greg Shealy

Date: April 11, 2019
Location: Orange Park Campus, Building D, room D-14
Start time: 5:30 p.m.

Due to its length, Dr. Shealy will show the second half of the movie (beginning after the film's intermission break). 

All are welcome!

If you need an interpreter, please email Dr. Will at least 2 days before the event.

Film Information: Birth of a Nation

"A profoundly influential and controversial film, this is the epic story of two families, one northern and one southern, during and after the Civil War. D. W. Griffith's masterful direction combines brilliant battle scenes and tender romance with a vicious portrayal of African-Americans. It energized the NAACP and also inspired African-Americans to move into filmmaking as a way to offer alternative images and stories." - distributor's synopsis

Full running time: 205 mins

This film was released in 1915 and is not rated.

Licensed through Kanopy

Resources for Further Exploration - The Birth of a Nation

Online Resources

The Worst Thing About “Birth of a Nation” Is How Good It Is - Article in The New Yorker

D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation 100 Years Later: Still Great, Still Shameful - Article in Time magazine

100 Years Later, What's The Legacy Of 'Birth Of A Nation'? - From NPR's All Things Considered

The Birth of a Nation: The most racist movie ever made? - From the BBC

Topics in Chronicling America - Popular Reactions to The Birth of a Nation - A collection of articles from 1915 - 1917 collected by the Library of Congress

Books and eBooks at the SJR State Library
Books may be checked out by community patrons as well as SJR State students faculty and staff. If a title is located at another campus, the book may be sent to another campus upon request.

Please note: eBooks are only accessible to currently registered SJR State students, faculty, and staff via MySJRstate due to licensing restrictions.

Celebration • Education • Reflection

H.R.1242/Public Law 115-102, the 400 Years of African American History Commission Act, establishes 2019 as a year of "commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Africans in the English colonies, at Point Comfort, Virginia, in 1619."  The commemoration is intended “to recognize and highlight the resilience and contributions of African-Americans since 1619; to acknowledge the impact that slavery and laws that enforced racial discrimination had on the United States; and to educate the public about the arrival of Africans in the United States; and the contributions of African-Americans to the United States.” In recognition of this commemoration and with the Act serving as a guide, the SJR State Library has organized a year-long series of events that will provide educational experiences and resources to students and the community that celebrate the history and culture of African Americans.

Site created and maintained by Dr. Christina Will. Pages will be added and maintained throughout 2019.
Maintenance will cease at the end of 2019 but this site will remain accessible.