Film / The Birth of a Nation

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Next to the film itself, this poster looks almost subtle.

"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."

The Birth of a Nation is a 1915 silent movie directed by D.W. Griffith, starring famous silent film actress Lillian Gish, and one of Hollywood's first great "epic" films. Based on the 1905 novel The Clansman by Thomas Dixon.

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, loathsomely demonizes black Americans (especially biracial black-white people), and glorifies the KKK. In fact, the KKK had a huge revival in the years after this was released (it numbered around 6 million members at its peak around 1925), and many people credit this movie as one of the reasons why.

This was the first feature-length movie to be screened at the White House. The President was Woodrow Wilson, who used to teach at Princeton University and Thomas Dixon was one of his former students. It is widely told that, after seeing the picture, Wilson said "It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." The truth is that he probably never said anything like that. Dixon and Griffith were so intent on making the movie a hit that they pretty much made up lies about celebrities and politicians endorsing it, including both Wilson and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and at one point Dixon even claimed the movie was "federally endorsed." In fact, that quote did not show up in print until after Wilson's death. Wilson actually had no idea what the movie was about before it was shown, and a few days later he released a press statement saying that he did not approve of the "unfortunate production." Though, for the record, part of the reason why the story is believed by so many people is that Wilson was racist even by his own time's standard.

This film is in the public domain and can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube or even its article on The Other Wiki.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation
  • Adaptational Heroism:
  • All Is Well That Ends Well: For certain definitions of "ends well."
  • All There Is to Know About "The Crying Game": The climax of the film, where the Ku Klux Klan heroically rides into town to depose the corrupt mulatto Governor Lynch, is the most well-known (and infamous) moment. The average person could be forgiven for not knowing the Klan doesn't even appear until the second half, as the first half concerns the American Civil War.
  • And Now You Must Marry Me: Silas Lynch has Elsie Stoneman Bound and Gagged and preparations made to forcibly wed her to him.
  • Animal Motifs: Flora Cameron is associated with squirrels. She likes to feed them, and like them, is energetic and enjoys the outdoors. This takes on a dark turn when Gus starts going after her, associating her with a prey animal.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: The black villains attempt rape, set up forced marriages, and...eat and drink during a session of the state legislature.
  • Attempted Rape: Gus tries to rape Flora Cameron.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Especially prevalent in the novel. All the heroes are beautiful; all the villains (except for Lydia Brown) are hideous.
  • Best Friends In Law: The "chums", Ben Cameron and Phil Stoneman, end up as brothers in-law after marrying each other's sisters.
  • Better to Die Than Be Killed: Flora Cameron jumps off a cliff rather than be raped —sort of, see below— by a freed slave
  • Big Bad: Silas Lynch.
  • Big Damn Heroes: The Ku Klux Klan in-universe, riding on horseback to rescue Elsie Stoneman from a forced marriage to Silas Lynch.
  • Bindle Stick: Justified. Carpetbaggers really did carry these.
  • Black and White Morality: Literally. In the Reconstruction chapter, the villains are vengeful, scheming, manipulative, corrupt politicians who use freed slaves and militia to terrorize the former Southern aristocracy. The heroes, the KKK are Knights in Shining Armour who at the end intimidate part of society into not voting. People don't consider this film racist for nothing.
  • Blackface: Unsurprisingly, there were few black actors who played the black roles in this film. The rest were filled in by white actors wearing glaringly obvious makeup. (Even in its racist heyday, blackface makeup was supposed to create a clownish caricature that no one would believe was a real black person; Griffith must not have thought much of his audience's powers of perception.)
    • In truth, Gus, Flora's would-be rapist, comes across more as an unwashed (white) coal miner than as a truly black man.
  • Bound and Gagged: A white woman, of course.
  • Bowdlerise: In the original novel, Gus succeeds in raping Marion Lenoir, Ben's childhood sweetheart.
  • Category Traitor: The Radical Republicans are implied to have betrayed the white race, especially with Stoneman himself having an extramarital affair with a black woman - leading him to give power to the evil mulatto who later try to rape his daughter.
  • The Cavalry: Every single shot of cavalry riding to the rescue in every western, ever, is merely a copy of one of the zillion shots of the Klan riding to the rescue in this film.
  • Changed My Mind, Kid
  • Close-Up on Head
  • Continuity Editing: D.W. Griffith practically defined continuity editing with movies like this.
  • Damsel in Distress: Flora Cameron and later, Elsie Stoneman. In the book, Marion Lenoir and her mother, Jeanine.
  • Defiled Forever
  • Divided States of America
  • Double In-Law Marriage: See Best Friends In Law above.
  • Dragon with an Agenda: Silas Lynch works for Austin Stoneman in attempting to destroy the South, but he has a different agenda: forging a "black empire."
  • Drinking on Duty: Some black politicians are seen boozing it up while attending a session of the State Legislature.
  • Epic Movie: Probably the first ever, though it is preceded by Cabiria by Giovanni Pastrone which like this film, was played at the White House.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: In-universe. When Silas Lynch first informs his mentor, Austin Stoneman, of his intention to marry a white woman, Austin Stoneman is initially congratulatory... until Silas specifies the white woman to be Stoneman's own daughter, Elsie.
  • Evil Cripple: Austin Stoneman.
  • Expy:
    • Austin Stoneman is a stand-in for Thaddeus Stevens, the leader of the Radical Republicans.
    • Ben Cameron as an ex-Confederate soldier who forms the Klan to protect Southern virtue is one for Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
  • Fair for Its Day: Invoked in the intro to the second part, but fails into aversion. Even during the "Nadir of American race relations" it was considered racist.
  • The Film of the Book: The Clansman by Thomas Dixon.
  • Framed Subject
  • Genki Girl: Flora
  • Genre-Busting: Griffith essentially codified aspects of The Western, emerging theatre and vaudeville, into a single whole and invented the Epic Movie format of the blockbuster. The idea of telling a story on a vast canvas through a single family was borrowed from the novel, while the film's acting style was pared down from theatre to the realistic requirements of the film medium, the film's action scenes also greatly advanced and impacted the war movie and The Western genre.
  • Golden Mean Fallacy: This movie tries so desperately to be neutral that it becomes monstrous. Siding neither with slavery nor with the "extremists" who want actual race equality, it supports the "neutral middle ground" of Jim Crow laws. The filmmakers seem to have thought that making Lincoln a sympathetic character and including an ass-kicking black heroine weighs up making the Ku Klux Klan heroes of the story.
  • Grievous Harm with a Body: One of the Ku-Kluxers clobbers several black guys with one of their friends. The way the man being swung as a club flops about indicates that Senator Stoneman isn't the only straw man in this film.
  • Happiness in Slavery: The real reason why Griffith kept insisting his film wasn't racist was that he had "positive" black characters: those who stayed with their former owners during Reconstruction. These were mostly house servants and nursemaids, who really did have comfortable lives; but the vast majority of black slaves were field hands, who barely even saw their masters and who lived like, well, slaves.
    • There are also various free blacks who say that they don't want the right to vote, and who argue against freedmen who join the Union Army or work for the Freedmen's Bureau. There were probably some of these historically, but not exactly a large number.
  • Historical Badass Upgrade: The Klan.
    • The Klan killed about 3,000 people over the course of its existence. This is quite a lot, but it's not nearly as many as Gettysburg (which the movie claims; for reference, 46,000 soldiers died there — 23,055 from the Union, 23,231 from the Confederacy).
    • The Klan specialized in assassinations and low-intensity guerrilla tactics. They took potshots at their enemies, but never launched full cavalry charges — and never had sufficient numbers to launch such charges. (GoneWithTheWind has a much more realistic depiction of Klan activity — including the part where the Klansmen are all plantation aristocracy.)
    • The film shows the KKK defeating the Union Army; in fact, the Union Army defeated the Klan, when President Ulysses S. Grant sent in heavy reinforcements once the Klan started scoring some successes. (Reconstruction ended shortly afterwards, in 1876-77, when Democratic delegates secured the withdrawal of US troops from their territory in exchange for allowing Rutherford B. Hayes' election as President to proceed smoothly.)
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: The Klan; and, indeed, the CSA, which picked a fight when the North was inclined to let them go peacefully, and which committed war crimes over the course of the war (especially giving no quarter against black US troops, and selling free black PO Ws into slavery).
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Thaddeus Stevens and Lydia Hamilton Smith were not mustache-twirling villains; nor was Stevens a corrupt hypocrite; nor were the Carpetbaggers and Scalawags intent on transforming the South into a mulatto empire. The worst that can be said of the Carpetbaggers is that they wanted to turn the South into Massachusetts.
  • Hollywood Darkness: Via use of tints (standard for silent films before colour).
  • An Insert: Pretty much required in silent movies with sophisticated plots.
  • In the Hood: The KKK wear white hoods partly to disguise their identities.
  • In-Universe Camera
  • The Klan: This was one of the earliest films ever, and portrayed the KKK as heroes.
  • Les Collaborateurs: Carpetbaggers, Scalawags, and freedmen. From the Southern aristocracy's perspective, this really is what they were, but an outside observer might think of another trope.
  • Light Is Good: The KKK from the film's perspective.
  • Light Is Not Good: The KKK from the viewer's perspective. (Even, again, viewers at the time!)
  • Love at First Sight: For both of our couples.
    • Love Before First Sight on Ben Cameron's part for Elsie Stoneman, though. Like a proto-Kyle Reese, he acquires a picture of her from her brother Phil and throughout his military career, he holds on to it and looks at it on a regular basis before he finally meets her.
      Ben Cameron: Though we had never met, I have carried you about with me for a long, long time.
  • Male Gaze: A Union hospital guard takes a long look at Gish after she passes by him to visit her convalescing boyfriend.
  • Melodrama: Especially in the second half.
  • Moral Myopia: Austin Stoneman has no problem with interracial marriage... until Silas says he wants to marry his daughter.
  • The Mountains of Illinois: At the end of the film, Ben and Elise are sitting on a bluff overlooking the ocean. There are no bluffs on the coastline of South Carolina.
  • My Eyes Are Up Here: Some of the KKK robes have a pair of large circles with crosses in them at chest height.
  • Never Mess with Granny: In The Birth of a Nation, we have an overweight elderly housekeeper leap into action and save her employer, knocking down at least one ruffian and two soldiers in the process. Interesting for a white supremacist racist work, the heroine is black and the man she's saving is white. It was a common belief at the time, and certainly Griffith's as a Southern whites, that African-Americans had been better off, and happier, as slaves, until they were "stirred up" by Northern interlopers. This viewpoint was later internalized by Northern politicians who weren't too keen on giving African-Americans the vote so they started buying into the "Lost Cause" view as well. A scene of a black woman leaping to the defense of her beloved employer/master was more acceptable than an African-American judge or soldier (who are shown as cackling villains in the film).
  • Ojou: Elsie and the Cameron sisters, at least at first.
  • Please Spare Him, My Liege!: Mother Cameron to Abraham Lincoln, on Ben's behalf.
  • Poirot Speak: "Dem free-niggers f'um de N'of um so' crazy".
  • Police Are Useless: Justified in that the Radical Republicans, more or less, own the police.
  • The Pollyanna: Flora Cameron, during the Civil War half.
  • Rape as Drama
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Abraham Lincoln who wants a peaceful reunification, the one thing in the film that is more or less accurate. This is of course consistent with the Dunning view which managed to be pro-Lincoln and anti-Reconstruction. In actual fact, Lincoln at the time of his death voiced public support for black suffrage, which was the trigger for Booth to murder him.
  • "Ride of the Valkyries": Used when the Klansmen ride to the rescue at the climax.
  • Scary Black Man: Gus.
    • And an even scarier biracial, Silas Lynch.
  • Southern Belle: Mrs. Cameron and her daughters, Margaret and Flora.
  • Stock Footage: Documentaries and such sometimes use this film's conveniently Public Domain footage to illustrate Civil War fighting or the Lincoln assassination. Those scenes, at least, are reasonably accurate.
  • Token Enemy Minority: The Cameron's servants are portrayed in a positive light, despite being black.
  • The Vamp: Lydia Brown.
  • Villainous Crush: Silas has a powerful one on Elsie.
  • Vigilante Execution: Gus gets lynched by the Klan and his corpse deposited on Silas Lynch's porch as a warning. This is portrayed not as pseudo-judicial murder, but as justice being served.
  • War Is Hell: The terrible human cost of the war is constantly emphasized, if only because it was between whites.
  • Where Da White Women At?: Sort of. Both Silas Lynch and Gus want White women but the women don't exactly return their feelings.
  • White Man's Burden: Played to some extent really horribly, with Austin Stoneman's mulatto protégé Silas.
  • Written by the Winners: Both inverted and played straight. The film is written from the Southern upper class's perspective, and they lost the war — but they won the peace, at the expense of Southern blacks (and of poor Southern whites, who don't really figure in this film).
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: The Ku Klux Klan are promoted in the film as vigilante heroes rising to protect the South from the Northern invaders and Les Collaborateurs.


Alternative Title(s): Birth Of A Nation, The Birth Of A Nation

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