Journal Article

Spectacular Realism: The Ghost of Jesus Christ in D. W. Griffith’s Vision of History

Phillip Maciak

in Adaptation

Volume 5, issue 2, pages 219-240
Published in print September 2012 | ISSN: 1755-0637
Published online May 2012 | e-ISSN: 1755-0645 | DOI:
Spectacular Realism: The Ghost of Jesus Christ in D. W. Griffith’s Vision of History

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Generally overlooked by scholars, the final scene of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation—in which Jesus Christ is superimposed in an apocalyptic revelry—is crucial to understanding Griffith’s aesthetic project. While it may seem an odd culmination to an historical romance of Reconstruction, this scene marks the culmination of an audacious and capacious realist project, an attempt to stretch the boundaries of visual language, and of historical representation, to include what we might imagine to exist outside the bounds of the real. Griffith’s film, in this scene, adapts the aesthetic of popular spirit photography, of the Passion Play film, and of popular historical writing in order to create a credible, realist Christ. Uncovering a theory of what I call ‘spectacular realism’—a realism based in the idea that the motion picture camera can discover previously unseen dimensions of reality and history—in the writings of Griffith, Vachel Lindsay, and others, I argue that this syncretic vision forces us to revisit the status of ‘realism’ in Griffith’s film as well as the binary model of realism versus fantasy that structures film history. Birth of a Nation, in this way, becomes a film about belief—about the medium’s ability to engender belief, about film’s transcendental potential for the representation of reality, about the possibility, or even the existence of a seamless plane that represents both the visible and the invisible, past and present, God, and nation.

Keywords: D. W. Griffith; Jesus Christ; Passion Plays; realism; spiritualism; historiography

Journal Article.  11485 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Film ; Television ; Literature

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