Religion and film in American culture: the birth of a nation

  • Author(s): Krzysztof Jozajtis
  • When: 2001-06
  • Where: University of Stirling
  • This research addresses an emerging scholarship examining relations between media, religion, and culture in contemporary society. Whilst it acknowledges the value of this growing body of work, the study is based on a recognition that an overwhelming concern with the contemporary scene has resulted in a neglect of the history responsible for the conditions of the present. Given the prominence of America as both a source and an object of this scholarship, moreover, the particular national context in which the institutions and practices of the US media have developed has been taken for granted somewhat. Oriented towards these perceived lacunae, this thesis examines the interaction between religion and film as an influence upon the development of American culture in the twentieth-century. The dissertation is divided into two main parts. The first of these is devoted to an extended discussion of the scholarly background to the research, and argues that the historical dimension of the interrelationship between religion and film in America is worthy of more attention than it has hitherto received. In particular, it stresses the fundamental importance of religion within the discourse of national identity in the United States, and posits the notion of a non-denominational American civil religion as a useful theoretical tool with which to examine Hollywood as a distinctively 'American' form of cinema. Part Two develops this position through a case study of The Birth of a Nation, directed by D.W. Griffith, and one of the most famous films of all time. Discussing the picture as a response to a crisis in American Protestantism, the study argues that the race controversy prompted by its Southern viewpoint was, to some extent, a function of Griffith's ambitions to revive the traditional religious bases of U.S. national identity via the medium of film. Furthermore, it suggests that the impact of Birth helped enact a broader transformation of American culture, wherein the cinema became instrumental in sustaining the belief that the United States was a nation uniquely favoured by Providence.

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