The Birth of a Nation

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The Birth of a Nation is a 1915 film directed by D. W. Griffith, based on Thomas Dixon's novel The Clansman, taking place during the American Civil War and the Reconstruction era. The fictional film depicted the reconstruction policies negatively and the Ku Klux Klan positively as restoring order in the postwar South. A message of the film was a stated need for reconciliation of Northern and Southern Whites in order to defend White interests. The widely seen film contributed to a revival of the Ku Klux Klan. The film was also influential for its technical and narrative innovations.


This silent film was originally presented in two parts separated by an intermission. The first half of the film depicted pre-Civil War America, introducing two juxtaposed families: the Northern Stonemans, consisting of abolitionist Congressman Austin Stoneman (based on real-life Reconstruction-era Congressman Thaddeus Stevens), his two sons, and his daughter, Elsie, and the Southern Camerons, a family including two daughters (Margaret and Flora) and three sons, most notably Ben.

The Stoneman boys visit the Camerons at their South Carolina estate, representing the Old South. The eldest Stoneman boy falls in love with Margaret Cameron, and Ben Cameron idolizes a picture of Elsie Stoneman. When the Civil War begins, all the young men join their respective armies. A black militia (with a white leader) ransacks the Cameron house, attempting to rape all the Cameron women, who are rescued when Confederate soldiers rout the militia. Meanwhile, the youngest Stoneman and two Cameron boys are killed in the war. Ben Cameron is wounded after a heroic battle in which he gains the nickname, "the Little Colonel," by which he is referred to for the rest of the film. The Little Colonel is taken to a Northern hospital where he meets Elsie, who is working there as a nurse. The war ends and Abraham Lincoln is assassinated at Ford's Theater, allowing Austin Stoneman and other radical congressmen to "punish" the South for secession with Reconstruction.

The second half of the film depicts Reconstruction. Stoneman and his mulatto protegé, Silas Lynch, go to South Carolina to observe their agenda of empowering Southern blacks via election fraud. Meanwhile, Ben, inspired by observing white children pretending to be ghosts to scare off black children, devises a plan to reverse perceived powerlessness of Southern whites by forming the Ku Klux Klan, although his membership in the group angers Elsie.

Then Gus, a murderous former slave with designs on white women, crudely proposes to marry Flora. She flees into the forest, pursued by Gus. Trapped on a precipice, Flora leaps to her death to avoid letting herself be raped. In response, the Klan hunts Gus, lynches him, and leaves his corpse on Lieutenant Governor Silas Lynch's doorstep. In retaliation, Lynch orders a crackdown on the Klan. The Camerons flee from the black militia and hide out in a small hut, home to two former Union soldiers, who agree to assist their former Southern foes in defending their "Aryan birthright," according to the caption.

Meanwhile, with Austin Stoneman gone, Lynch tries to force Elsie to marry him. Disguised Klansmen discover her situation and leave to get reinforcements. The Klan, now at full strength, rides to her rescue and takes the opportunity to evict all of the blacks. Simultaneously, Lynch's militia surrounds and attacks the hut where the Camerons are hiding, but the Klan saves them just in time. Victorious, the Klansmen celebrate in the streets, and the film cuts to the next election where the Klan successfully disenfranchises black voters. The film concludes with a double honeymoon of Phil Stoneman with Margaret Cameron and Ben Cameron with Elsie Stoneman. The final frame shows masses oppressed by a mythical god of war suddenly finding themselves at peace under the image of Christ. The final title rhetorically, and with unrealised irony, asks: "Dare we dream of a golden day when the bestial War shall rule no more. But instead-the gentle Prince in the Hall of Brotherly Love in the City of Peace."

Adaptation of source material

The film was based on Thomas Dixon's novels The Clansman and The Leopard's Spots. At its Los Angeles premiere in February at Clune's Auditorium, it was entitled The Clansman.

The title was changed to The Birth of a Nation to reflect Griffith's belief that before the American Civil War, the United States was a loose coalition of states antagonistic toward each other. He thought that the Northern victory over the breakaway Southern states finally bound the states under one national authority.[1]


Griffith, whose father had been a reputed Confederate Army hero, agreed to pay Thomas Dixon $10,000 for the rights to his play The Clansman. Since he ran out of money and could afford only $2,500 of the original option, Griffith offered Dixon 25 percent interest in the picture. Dixon reluctantly agreed. The film's unprecedented success made him rich. Dixon's proceeds were the largest sum any author had received for a motion picture story and amounted to several million dollars.

Griffith's budget started at US$40,000, but the film finally cost $112,000[2] (the equivalent of $2.2 million in 2007[3]). As a result, Griffith had to seek new sources of capital for his film. A ticket to the film cost a record $2 (the equivalent of $40 in 2007[3]). It remained the most profitable film of all time until it was dethroned by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937.

West Point engineers provided technical advice on the Civil War battle scenes. They provided Griffith with the masses of artillery used in the film.[4]

The film premiered on February 8, 1915, at Clune's Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles.


Political ideology

The film is controversial due to its interpretation of history. University of Houston historian Steven Mintz summarises its message as follows: Reconstruction was a disaster, blacks could never be integrated into white society as equals, and the violent actions of the Ku Klux Klan were justified to reestablish honest government.[5] The film shows how the Ku Klux Klan restored order to the post-war South, which was endangered by abolitionists, freedmen, and carpetbagging Republican politicians from the North.


The film drew significant protest from Blacks upon its release. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1910, protested premieres of the film in numerous cities. The NAACP also conducted a public education campaign, publishing articles protesting the film's fabrications and inaccuracies, organizing petitions against it, and conducting education on the facts of the war and Reconstruction. [6]

When the film was shown, riots broke out in Boston, Philadelphia and other major cities. Chicago, Denver, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Minneapolis refused to allow the film to open. The film's inflammatory character was a catalyst for gangs of whites to attack blacks. In Lafayette, Indiana, after seeing the movie, a white man killed a black teenager. [7]

Thomas Dixon, author of the source play The Clansman was a former classmate of President Woodrow Wilson at Princeton University. Dixon arranged a screening at the White House, for Wilson, members of his cabinet, and their families. Wilson was reported to have commented of the film that "it is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." In Wilson: The New Freedom, Arthur Link quotes Wilson's aide, Joseph Tumulty, who denied Wilson said this and also claims that "the President was entirely unaware of the nature of the play before it was presented and at no time has expressed his approbation of it."[8]

Relentless in publicizing the film, Dixon himself was apparently the source for the quote, which has been repeated so often in print that it has taken on a separate life. Dixon went so far as to promote the film as "Federally endorsed". After controversy over the film had grown, Wilson wrote that he disapproved of the "unfortunate production."[9] DW Griffith would also respond to the film's negative critical reception with his next film Intolerance, which attacked the institution of slavery.

In 1918 Emmett J. Scott helped produce and John W. Noble directed The Birth of a Race in response. The film portrayed a positive image of blacks. Although the film was panned by white critics, it was well-received by black critics and moviegoers attending segregated theaters.reference required Also in 1919, director/producer/writer Oscar Micheaux released Within Our Gates, another response. Notably, he reversed a key scene of Griffith's film by depicting a white man assaulting a black woman.

As late as the 1970s, the Ku Klux Klan continued to use the film as a recruitment tool. Nearly a century later, the film remains controversial. On February 22, 2000, in an article entitled "A Painful Present as Historians Confront a Nation's Bloody Past", staff writer Claudia Kolker wrote in the Los Angeles Times:

The end of World War I brought both economic crisis, and an anti-Red fever that extended to minority groups and trade unions. Just three years earlier, a defunct Ku Klux Klan leaped back to life with help from the film Birth of a Nation.[10]

Significance in film history

Released in 1915, the film has been credited with securing the future of feature-length films (any film over 60 minutes in length), as well as solidifying the language of cinema.

In its day, it was the highest grossing film, taking in more than $10 million, according to the box cover of the Shepard version of the DVD currently available (equivalent to $200 million in 2007).[3] In 1992 the United States Library of Congress deemed it "culturally significant" and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.


A sequel was released to theaters one year later, in 1916, called The Fall of a Nation. The film was directed by Thomas Dixon, who adapted it from the novel of the same name. The film has three acts and a prologue.[11] Despite its success in the foreign market, the film was not a success among the American audience[12] and is now considered a lost film.

See also

External links


  1. Russell Merritt, "Dixon, Griffith, and the Southern Legend." Cinema Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1. (Autumn, 1972).
  2. William K. Everson, American Silent Film. New York: Da Capo Press, 1978, p. 78
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Consumer Price Index calculator at Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis website
  4. Seelye, Katharine Q. "When Hollywood's Big Guns Come Right From the Source." The New York Times, 10 June 2002.
  5. Digital History
  6. NAACP - Timeline
  7. The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow . Jim Crow Stories . The Birth of a Nation | PBS
  8. Letter from J. M. Tumulty, secretary to President Wilson, to the Boston branch of the NAACP, quoted in Link, Wilson.
  9. Woodrow Wilson to Joseph P. Tumulty, April 28, 1915 in Wilson, Papers, 33:86.
  10. A Painful Present as Historians Confront a Nation's Bloody Past
  11. The Fall of a Nation (1916)
  12. Google Books.