Study Guide

The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation Introduction


Release Year: 1915

Genre: Drama, War

Director: D.W. Griffith

Writer: D.W. Griffith, Frank E. Woods

Stars: Henry B. Walthall, Lilian Gish, George Siegmann


Think of SNL's "The Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started A Conversation With At A Party." You know: the kind of person who uses words like "inexusative," says "read it on the TV," messes up pretty much every fact that can be possibly be messed up, and goes on for way. too. long.

Now think of the most virulent, disgusting racist imaginable. Now think of their possible child.

That will get the human embodiment of The Birth of a Nation...a movie that has been called maybe the most racist film ever made.

If you want to turn away from this spectacle of horrific bigotry, now's the time. But know this—The Birth of a Nation is also a legitimately ground-breaking film. For all of the (many, many, many) valid criticisms we can make about the film's racism and rampant historical revisionism, we can't deny that it's one of the most important movies of all time.

Released in 1915, The Birth of a Nation was met with simultaneous raves and outcry. Proponents of the film saw it as a historical epic that told the story about the relationship between the South and North in America. Opponents saw it as a load of blatantly historically false, painfully and dangerously racist hogwash. (Psst: the opponents were right.)

But if there's anything we've learned about controversy, is that it gets peoples' attention.

  

Although it's tough to get exact box office figures from so long ago, the film made a boatload of money. This was only the second full-length feature film directed by D.W. Griffith, but its success would catapult him into fame (or infamy, depending on how you look at it). This feat is particularly impressive because Griffith was intimately involved in every aspect of the film, from directing to writing to producing.

The film itself is an account of the American Civil War and the Reconstruction Era that followed. It follows two families—the Camerons from the South and the Stonemans from the North—as they struggle to make sense of this conflict and redefine their sense of the world in its wake. That all sounds well and good...but the movie also happens to extol the virtues of a certain white supremacist group known as the Ku Klux Klan.

In fact, the film even led to a revival of the Klan, which had died out forty years prior. While this is disturbing for obvious reasons, it reveals two important things. First—The Birth of a Nation is an incredibly effective piece of propaganda. And second—movies can be powerful. They might not always be powerful in a positive way, but they can truly change the course of history.

And that's exactly why The Birth of a Nation is worth studying.

Yes, it's vile, racist, and inflammatory. Yes, it takes a collage-art approach to history. But to study cinema without studying The Birth of a Nation would be to deny yourself front-row seats to the beginning of a lot of cinematic tropes...and the twisted, horrific way that some people in 1915 viewed American history.

What is The Birth of a Nation About and Why Should I Care?

Look, we're not even going to try and sugarcoat this. The Birth of a Nation is a super-difficult film to study. The movie's value system is repugnant: it portrays a violent group of racist terrorists like heroes. It's routinely called the most racist movie ever made (which is not a fun, high school yearbook-type superlative). After seeing the disgusting moral content of the film, it might be tempting to shut off the movie and never watch it again. 

But that's the exact reason why you should take a closer look at The Birth of a Nation.

After all, The Birth of a Nation is one of the highest-grossing films of all-time when adjusted for inflation, and it's widely considered the first "blockbuster." What does that say about the entirefilm industry? What does that say about American society at large? What does it say about the perspective of individual Americans? 

These questions are a heavy as an elephant made out of lead...but there's no hope of answering them unless we study this film.

They say that if you don't know your history, you're doomed to repeat it. (Just ask famed philosopher George Santayana.) And judging by the fact that racism still exists in a huge way in America, we're going to go ahead and say that we're still kind of repeating it.

The same racist bile you see in The Birth of a Nation is still being spewed in the gloomy recesses of internet forums today. The Ku Klux Klan is still active—in fact, there were between 5,000 and 8,000 members as of 2014. Interracial marriages are still being met with hatred. The list of ways in which bigotry is alive and well goes on and on. And on. And on some more.

To watch this film is to confront, head-on, some of the most shameful aspects of American society. Yeah, it'll make your skin crawl and your stomach churn. But it will also prop your eyes wide open—both to the past and the present. Get your historical knowledge down...so you can work to break its cyclical nature.

Trivia

In 2016, director/actor Nate Parker released his own film called The Birth of a Nation. The name is about the only thing these two movies share, however. Parker's film is a fictionalized portrayal of the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in 1813. In naming the film, Parker sought to retake the title from the most racist film of all time. We'd wager that he did a pretty good job based on the Google page rankings. (Source)

The Birth of a Nation is now in the public domain, which means that it's totally legal to reproduce and distribute it—that is, if you want people to think that you're a crazy racist. (Source)

Thomas Dixon Jr., author of The Clansman, made a quasi-sequel to The Birth of a Nation in 1916 called The Fall of a Nation. It's an alternate-history film about European forces invading the U.S. Didn't you see the after-credits sequence? They totally spoiled it. (Source)

A man named Louis B. Mayer would find his first success in the film industry distributing The Birth of a Nation in the Northeast. He would use this money to start a little company called…MGM. Mind: blown. (Source)

D.W. Griffith was so offended by the "intolerance" displayed by people who spoke out against The Birth of a Nation that he made a film the following year called Intolerance. The irony of this is so thick that it makes us want to explode. (Source)

The Birth of a Nation Resources

Websites

The Civil War Trust
The Civil War Trust offers educational resources about the American Civil War to the public, as well as preserving battlefields and other historical landmarks.

The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow
This PBS-run site discusses the struggles faced by black Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War and, in particular, the racist laws enacted in the South known as "Jim Crow laws."

Book or TV Adaptations

The Clansman
The Birth of a Nation is actually based in part on this 1905 novel, which was adapted into a play prior to the release of the film.

Articles and Interviews

The Most Racist Film Ever Made
For an outside perspective on America's cinematic tribute to racism, check out this insightful article courtesy of the BBC.

The Birth of a Nation's First Screenings
This New York Times piece focuses on the reaction to the release of the film, which is so fascinating that they could have a movie made about it.

Why Reconstruction Matters
For a crash course in the Reconstruction Era, check out this article from the New York Times.

Video

The Failure of Reconstruction
For a more historically accurate account of the Reconstruction Era, check out this video from the History Channel.

The Civil War: The Cause
This short video is an excerpt from Ken Burns' nine-part documentary series on the subject, which is a must-watch if you're interested in learning more.

D.W. Griffith: Controversial Film Pioneer
This brief video examines D.W. Griffith's career as a filmmaker, which was fraught with controversy despite his innovative work.

Audio

What's the Legacy of The Birth of a Nation?
This radio piece, written 100 years after the release of the film, examines the changing perception of it, based on historical circumstances.

The Supreme Court's Failure to Protect Blacks' Rights
Courtesy of NPR, here's a more realistic examination of the Reconstruction Era, which focuses on the way that black Americans were disenfranchised during the time.

Images

A Map of the Confederacy and the Union
This neat-o GIF shows the exact order that the South seceded from the US. Warning: it's a long one.

Protests of The Birth of a Nation
It's a tiny picture, but it's worth looking at just the same. This specific protest took place in New York City.