Double Take: Photography, Cinema, and the Segregated Theater

Elizabeth Abel

in Signs of the Times

Published by University of California Press

Published in print June 2010 | ISBN: 9780520261174
Published online March 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780520945869 | DOI:
Double Take: Photography, Cinema, and the Segregated Theater

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This chapter deals with the connections among photography, cinema, and segregated movie theaters in the United States. It looks through the lens of the movie camera at the anxieties provoked by a seating arrangement that placed socially inferior spectators above their social superiors. Rather than address recent documentary and fiction films in which segregation signs make cameo appearances, this chapter looks back at the formative moment of the teens and twenties, when the cinematic apparatus achieved the classical form that produced the conception of a universal spectator. A close reading of the pivotal scene of Abraham Lincoln's assassination in the Ford Theater in D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915) suggests that the film's twinned celebrations of cinematography and white supremacy cover a fear of the insurrectionary potential of the theater's segregated balcony as a site that resists, and hence elicits, directorial control. Birth of a Nation is an inevitable, if also overused, fulcrum for opening the question of race and spectatorship in the early twentieth century.

Keywords: Birth of a Nation; photography; cinema; movie theater; seating arrangement; spectators; race; cinematography; segregated balcony; white supremacy

Chapter.  10653 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of the Americas

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