Follow TV Tropes


Film / The Birth of a Nation (1915)

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

The Birth of a Nation is a 1915 silent film 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 premise is a two-part chronicle of American history, with considerable neo-Confederate liberties.

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, 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 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 black militia, and effectively disenfranchise the black voters. The people depicted throughout as the "true enemy", though, are mulattoes– those of mixed white and black 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 too many tropes to count, and is considered one of the most groundbreaking films ever, proving that cinema was a valid form of media rather than a passing fad. It was a massive hit, grossing somewhere between $50–100 million.note  However, it was also extremely controversial even when released, as 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 (membership numbered around six million at its peak around 1925), and many people credit Birth as one of the reasons why.

This was the first feature-length film to be screened at the White House. Then-President Woodrow Wilson, former Princeton University professor, 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; the quote appears to have been fabricated by Dixon.

The film is in the public domain note  and can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube or even its article on The Other Wiki. Many early cinema pioneers worked on or appeared in the film: John Ford is a Klansman, Erich von Stroheim was one of Griffith's assistants, and Raoul Walsh plays John Wilkes Booth.

Because of its historical prominence and the fact that it was, despite its ludicrous and false premise, incredibly well-made, Birth has long been prominent in film classes as educational material. Needless to say, it has become ever more divisive as people have become more willing to challenge both the Lost Cause lies it propounds and its inclusion in nearly every single film school's catalog of must-watch movies. There are, after all, many other movies that showcase historical firsts, innovation, and great film technique without also glorifying white supremacist violence.

In 2016, over a century after the release, a film with the same name was released. However, unlike the former's pro-Klan overtones, the 2016 one was the exact opposite, concerning a slave rebellion; info on that film can be found here.

Compare Triumph of the Will, a similarly influential white nationalist propaganda piece produced in Nazi Germany 20 years later.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: In the novel, Marion, the character corresponding to Flora, is Ben's childhood sweetheart rather than his little sister. She is raped by Gus, while in the film it's not actually clear that's what Gus intended. And she jumps off the cliff because she was Defiled Forever, and her mother jumps with her.
  • All Is Well That Ends Well: Well, all yet seems well. White power is restored in the South, a terrorized black populace is returned to what the KKK thought was their rightful place, and the Cameron siblings marry the Stoneman siblings.
  • 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 drink during a session of the state legislature.
  • Artistic License – History: In general, the film supports a racist reading of the American Civil War and Reconstruction, including that put forth by the Dunning School, that has since been discredited by modern scholars. The film also gets specifics wrong, such as portraying a black militia raiding South Carolina, which never happened.
  • Attempted Rape: Gus tries to rape Flora Cameron. She jumps to her death instead.
  • 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 by a freed slave.
  • Big Bad: Silas Lynch, who seeks to manipulate Austin Stoneman and use the black troops in the South to form a "Black Empire".
  • Big Damn Heroes: The Ku Klux Klan in-universe, riding on horseback to rescue Elsie Stoneman from a forced marriage to Silas Lynch.
  • 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-Universe, "white spies disguised" infiltrate the mob of black soldiers rampaging through the town at the end.
  • Blood from the Mouth: Seen from the mouth of a dying Flora after she flings herself off the cliff.
  • Bound and Gagged: A white woman, of course. Lynch does this to Elsie while he's trying to force her to marry him.
  • Bowdlerise: In the original novel, Gus succeeds in raping Marion Lenoir, Ben's childhood sweetheart.
  • Broken Aesop: The film's final scene carries a message of peace and universal brotherhood...but this was after scenes of immense violence and persecution against the black characters. Perhaps the message is "white people deserve peace and liberty while black people should get eternal subjugation."
  • 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 tries to rape his daughter. There's also a "scalawag" white captain who leads the black soldiers.
  • 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.
  • Closeup on Head: A shot starts with showing a mother and daughter, huddled together, weeping. The shot pans over to show that they are actually hiding on the top of a hill, and far below them, the Union army is burning their house.
  • 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.
  • Corrupt Politician: The black legislators are depicted as incompetent and sleazy buffoons, with Lynch portrayed as a devilish fiend.
  • Damsel in Distress: Flora Cameron and later, Elsie Stoneman. Flora commits suicide rather than be raped, while Elsie is saved from marrying Silas Lynch by The Cavalry.
  • Dead Guy on Display: After the Klan murders Gus, they dump his body on the front steps of Silas Lynch's house.
  • Death Glare: Any time Ben Cameron lays eyes upon Silas Lynch.
  • Defiled Forever: Averted, as Flora Cameron leaps to her death rather than (maybe) get raped by Gus.
  • Divided States of America: A drama of the Civil War as seen through two families, one Northern and one Southern.
  • Dodgy Toupee: If all the other negative characterization wasn't enough, in his first scene Austin Stoneman is shown futzing with and adjusting his toupee.
  • Double In-Law Marriage: Ends with a double honeymoon after siblings Elsie and Phil Stoneman marry, respectively, siblings Ben and Margaret Cameron.
  • Doves Mean Peace: Ironic, considering the film's promotion of violent racist values, but Ben and Else kissing a dove together is used to both symbolise their love for each other and peace between the Northern and Southern states of America.
  • 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: One of the first epic movies ever, a three-hour epic of sweeping scope and ambition, in an age when most films were 20 minute or less. Not the first epic, as Cabiria, a film that had obvious influence on Griffith, came out the year before.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: The most racist Eureka Moment ever. Ben is lost in thought when he sees two white kids frighten a group of black kids by hiding under a sheet and pretending to be ghosts. From this Ben gets the inspiration for the white hoods and robes of the KKK.
  • 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, who hobbles around on a cane.
  • 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.
  • False Dichotomy: Meta example; the movie promotes the idea that people who oppose white supremacy are in fact black supremacists, and therefore any white man who treats African-Americans like actual people is a race traitor. The idea that a person, white or black, can desire actual racial equality is something that neither Thomas Dixon nor D. W. Griffith seemed to have ever considered, and it is a sign that that both the movie and the book it was based on is propaganda, plain and simple.
  • The Film of the Book: The Clansman by Thomas Dixon.
  • Flat Character: Another reason this film is so hated by modern audiences is because a good chunk of the characters have little — if any — personality. (i.e.: Elsie Stoneman, Austin Stoneman, Margaret Cameron, to name a few)
  • 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.
  • Half-Breed Discrimination: One of the themes is that mixing of the races is bad and that the offspring of those marriages are evil. The two worst villains in the film, Lydia Smith and Silas Lynch, are "mulattoes".
  • 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.
    • In an early scene where the Stonemans get a tour of the slave quarters, the slaves sing and dance for them.
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: Ben's Klan robe is folded up into a white pillow and left on the living room couch. This works well enough until a black soldier peeping through the door sees Margaret Cameron folding the robe up.
  • Historical Badass Upgrade: The Ku Klux 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 as the movie claims; approximately 7800 soldiers died there.
    • 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. (Gone with the Wind 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 Confederate States of America, a treasonous rebellion for the preservation of 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 color). The night fighting during the Petersburg sequence is tinted.
  • An Insert: Pretty much required in silent movies with sophisticated plots.
  • In the Hood: The KKK wear white hoods partly to disguise their identities.
  • The Klan: This was one of the earliest films ever, and portrayed the KKK as heroes.
  • Light Is Good: The KKK from the film's perspective, heroes that save the white race from subjugation.
  • Love at First Sight: For both of our couples.
  • Love Before First Sight: On Ben Cameron's part for Elsie Stoneman. 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 Elsie after she passes by him to visit a convalescing Ben.
  • Mammy: The Camerons' cook is actually called "Mammy", and she fits the trope exactly, being overweight, and sassy but loyal to her masters. By her very weight she manages to pin down two soldiers long enough to free Dr. Cameron.
  • Meaningful Name: A former black slave — and a monstrously racist caricature — named Lynch. Charming.
  • Melodrama: Especially in the second half.
  • Milking the Giant Cow:
    • Flora makes the stereotypical cow-milking gesture right before she commits suicide.
    • Elsie does this a couple of times when Silas drops the bomb about wanting to marry her, right before she resorts to the other silent-movie emotion trope, fainting.
  • 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.
  • The Namesake: The title refers to the thesis that the United States did not truly become a nation until after the Civil War. It does not refer to the birth of the Confederacy, as often assumed by those who only know of the film by its (deserved) reputation for racism.
  • Never Mess with Granny: 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).
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed:
    • Austin Stoneman is a stand-in for Thaddeus Stevens, the leader of the Radical Republicans. And "Lydia Brown" is a stand-in for Stevens' Real Life biracial common-law wife, Lydia Hamilton Smith.
    • 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. (This is a looser example. Forrest was a cavalry general, while Ben Cameron is an infantry colonel. Not to mention Forrest actually left the KKK and even condemned it for being too violent.)
  • Ojou: Elsie and the Cameron sisters, at least at first.
  • Please Spare Him, My Liege!: Mother Cameron to Abraham Lincoln, on Ben's behalf. And Lincoln, whom the movie calls "the great heart", does.
  • Poirot Speak: "Dem free-niggers f'um de N'of um so' crazy". So says "Mammy" when she meets Stoneman's servant.
  • Police Are Useless: Justified in that the Radical Republicans, more or less, own the police.
  • 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.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Yes, even a film with massive Values Dissonance such as this one, can have a surprising amount of symbolism. Though it's not exactly subtle...
    • The straightforward film ends with a mind-bogglingly trippy closing scene. The vision reflects the stated anti-war purpose of the film. We see a personification of war—a massive armored soldier sitting atop a steed—attacking a group of screaming people on the left side of the screen, while the right side is filled with dead bodies. Slowly, the scene shifts. Instead of a group of wounded people, we see a group of happy folks partying in togas. Instead of a giant warrior superimposed over them, we see Jesus Christ himself. Ironically enough, neither of these scenes take place in modern times—they seem either medieval or ancient. On one hand, the symbolism is pretty simple: war is bad and Christianity is good. On the other, however, it seems to be a subtle way of implying that Jesus is on the side of the South, which seems pretty absurd considering the whole slavery business. Either way, it's quite the trippy way of closing out a film that takes an otherwise realistic approach.
    • The varied state of the Camerons' plantation mansion reflects the state of the South at large. At first, the house is completely luxurious. This establishes the mansion—and the Camerons themselves—as symbols of the Southern aristocracy. The house becomes a major target during the war. For example, at one point a group of guerillas attack the house, ransacking it and setting it on fire. Later, during Reconstruction, Lynch makes it his goal to cause as much damage to it as possible. Because the house represents the Southern aristocracy, these attacks represent the perceived targeting of that aristocracy by the North during the Reconstruction. Furthermore, the house's resilience despite these attacks reflect Griffith's belief that this line of nobility is alive and well in this new American era.
    • Animals pop up often throughout The Birth of a Nation, and they carry a different sort of symbolic resonance each time. For example: When we first meet the Cameron family, there is a gaggle of adorable puppies and kittens playing at their feet. This is supposed to relate them (and the pre-war South as a whole) with innocence, an innocence that Griffith thinks is sullied after the Civil War. Later, the villainous Silas Young is shown beating a dog and giving it to other men for even more nefarious deeds. This is not a particularly subtle way of revealing the dude's evil nature. Soon, after Lynch beats up the dog, Ben and Elsie are seen kissing a dove together. It's a way of relating their love to peace between the North and South, as doves typically symbolize peace.
  • Same Content, Different Rating: While considered a film for general audiences across the world at the time, some ratings boards that have taken a look at The Birth of a Nation through a modern lens strongly disagree. The BBFC, for example, originally rated it U in 1916 (and came to the same conclusion as late as 1952), but upon reevaluation in 1994, up-rated it all the way to 15, citing its racist themes and language as the key reason.
  • Scary Black Man: Gus, who stalks and apparently tries to rape Flora. And an even scarier biracial, Silas Lynch.
  • Southern Belle: Mrs. Cameron and her daughters, Margaret and Flora.
  • Spiritual Antithesis: Thomas Dixon Jr. described The Clansman, the novel this film was based on, as "a sequel" to Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Whereas that book was Stowe's denunciation of the un-Christian evil and barbarism of slavery, The Clansman was Dixon railing against the disaster that he saw in the end of slavery, with the Ku Klux Klan presented as heroes doing their best to restore what they could of the old order. Gus has often been described as a Corrupted Character Copy of Uncle Tom; whereas Uncle Tom is a paragon of Christian morality who dies a martyr by refusing to give away the whereabouts of two slaves he helped escape, Gus is a violent rapist who gets what he has coming through a Vigilante Execution courtesy of the Klan.
  • Split Screen:
    • One of the first (but not the first) uses of this trope. A diagonal split shows two scenes from Sherman's March to the Sea in 1864; the lower left portion shows Union soldiers torching a single farmhouse, while the upper right shows Atlanta burning.
    • Used again in the very last shot, as Ben and Elsie look off over the edge of the cliff, while the other half of the screen is a shot of the symbolic New Jerusalem of peace and brotherhood. (For white people anyway.)
  • Time Skip: A simple "Two and a half years later" card takes the film forward from right after Bull Run to sometime in late 1863, to Ben Cameron serving in the army somewhere.
  • Token Enemy Minority: The Cameron's servants are portrayed in a positive light, despite being black.
  • Together in Death: Youngest sons Tod Stoneman and Duke Cameron are killed in the same battle at the same place. Tod even embraces Duke as Tod dies.
  • The Vamp: Lydia Brown, who uses her sexuality to manipulate Austin Stoneman.
  • 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.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The fate of Silas Lynch is not shown after he is captured by the Klan and Elsie is freed. Of course, it isn't hard to guess.
  • Where da White Women At?:
    • Sort of. Both Silas Lynch and Gus want white women but the women don't exactly return their feelings.
    • One particularly racist scene has white women in the gallery watching as the state legislature, now consisting entirely of freed slaves, passes a law allowing intermarriage between races. The legislators cast interested glances at the white women in the stands.
  • 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.