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Production of American Religious FreedomThe Production of American Religious Freedom$
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Finbarr Curtis

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781479882113

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9781479882113.001.0001

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The Helpless White Minority

The Helpless White Minority

D. W. Griffith and Violence

(p.68) 4 The Helpless White Minority
Production of American Religious Freedom

Finbarr Curtis

NYU Press

D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film Birth of a Nation portrays Reconstruction as a crisis of democratic sovereignty where a disenfranchised white minority struggles under the supposed tyranny of African American rule. With no faith in legal institutions, the film’s characters employ violence outside the law. In the logic of the film, lynching is a form of aestheticized racial violence that protects the sovereignty of the white household. The terrifying actions of Klansmen take on a tragic quality in which extralegal violence is deemed necessary to resist political authority. The intensity of the terror testifies to the heroism of the characters willing to take on this sacrificial duty. As moral victims of the violence that they themselves enact, the film’s protagonists ask for sympathy for the terrible deeds they perform to protect their freedom. For his part, Griffith wanted to be free to create a work of art not bound by ethical rules. To tell a violent but aesthetically potent story, Griffith refused to be constrained by ordinary rules of civil discourse in a way that mirrored the Klansmen who employed extralegal violence that also violated ethical and legal norms.

Keywords:   Confederacy, free speech, lynching, sacrifice, victimization

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