The Birth of a Nation

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
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"Classic or not, Birth of a Nation has long been one of the embarrassments of film scholarship. It can't be ignored ... and yet it was regarded as outrageously racist even at a time when racism was hardly a household word."

Andrew Sarris

"Despite Birth's blatant glorification of the KKK and depiction of black Americans as wild animals, this movie still ... nope, we're not finishing that sentence. On one hand, it pioneered concepts like actually moving the cameras and using rapid cuts, and you're probably still seeing its influence in movies today. On the other hand, everything else about it."

A 1915 silent movie directed by D. W. Griffith, starring famous silent film actress Lillian Gish, The Birth of a Nation is one of Hollywood's first great "epic" films.

The plot of The Birth of a Nation is a two-part chronicle of American history. The first part depicts the nation before, during, and after The American Civil War, from the perspective of two juxtaposed families - the Northern Stonemans, who are abolitionists and federalists, and the Southern Camerons, who are secessionists. When war breaks out, the houses must send their sons off to their respective opposing armies. The Camerons suffer many hardships in the war torn and depleted South, and must deal with hunger, ransackers, looters, and rapists. Eventually, the Union army crushes the Confederacy, ending the war. President Abraham Lincoln promises to rebuild the South, in spite of protests from vengeful Northern politicians who would execute its leaders and treat the land as conquered territory. But Abraham Lincoln is assassinated at Ford's Theater, allowing the Radical Republicans, led by Austin Stoneman, to gain strength and support for inflicting punitive measures on the South for their rebellion.

The second part depicts the Reconstruction era. With the war over and slavery abolished, new issues arrive that America must resolve. The South must be rebuilt and re-integrated as part of the nation, without its dependency on slavery. The freed slaves must find their place in the new society, and their rights and legal status must be determined. Violent controversy erupts in the South over how to tackle these issues. Stoneman and the Radical Republicans go to South Carolina to try to influence the votes of Southern blacks. The Ku Klux Klan is formed in response, who hunt down and lynch a murderous former slave, rescue the Cameron family from an attack by a negro militia, and effectively disenfranchise the black voters. The people depicted throughout the film as the "true enemy," though, are mulattoes -- those of mixed white and negro ancestry, who will stop at nothing to bring the white man down.

Being one of the first feature films ever, The Birth of a Nation introduced, refined, and popularized zillions of tropes, and is considered one of the most groundbreaking films ever. But it is also extremely controversial - its view of Reconstruction is one that promotes white supremacy and that glorifies the KKK. Not surprisingly, one of President Woodrow Wilson's favorite films (Wilson segregated the Navy and introduced Jim Crow laws to Washington, DC). Even he had to distance himself from his praise of the film eventually, though.

The Birth of a Nation was added to the National Film Registry in 1992 - the same year that the counterbalancing Within Our Gates was added to the Registry and three years after Griffith's later work Intolerance was listed.

This film is in the public domain and can be viewed in its entirety at Youtube.


Tropes used in The Birth of a Nation include: