'History by Lightning': D.W. Griffith in South Africa

Nicole Devarenne (Lead / Corresponding author)

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Unsurprisingly, the racial politics of D.W. Griffith’s films had particular resonance for Afrikaner nationalists in the decades leading up to apartheid. This chapter examines the influence on South African cinema of Griffith’s early Biograph films as well as Birth of a Nation. It focuses on two Griffith-inspired films, De Voortrekkers (1916) and Bou van ’n Nasie (literally, ‘Building a Nation’, 1938), which helped to create a ‘white’ South African identity and history in the lead-up to apartheid and National Party rule. These films draw upon Griffith’s ways of representing racial difference, interracial conflict, and the peril and exhilaration of the frontier in constructing their own distorted and highly racialised account of South Africa’s history. Griffith’s ambition towards cinematic historiography in The Birth of a Nation was clearly also instructive, particularly in the case of the 1938 film, made to celebrate the centenary of the Great Trek and commemorate the deaths of 500 white settlers at the hands of the Zulus at Weenen in 1838. The chapter also explores the ways in which Griffith’s imagination was fired by real or imaginary South African contexts, for instance in his short film The Zulu’s Heart (1908), shot in New Jersey with white actors. As well as the trope of the murderous savage, the loyal savage (a central figure in later Griffith films such as His Trust and His Trust Fulfilled, both 1911) is developed here. This trope illustrates the dualisms at the heart of Griffith’s racial ideology, and that of his South African inheritors.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Wiley-Blackwell Companion to D.W. Griffith
EditorsCharlie Keil
Number of pages24
ISBN (Electronic)9781118341056
ISBN (Print)9781118341254
Publication statusPublished - 19 Dec 2017

Publication series

NameWiley-Blackwell Companions to Film Directors


  • Race
  • white supremacy
  • cinema
  • nationalism

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