Study Guide

The Birth of a Nation Summary

The Birth of a Nation Summary

Oh, you want a brief summary? The groundbreaking, historically significant Birth of a Nation is best known for being a super crazy racist movie.

Hmm. Maybe not so brief? Okay, here goes: the Civil War ends, Honest Abe is shot, and—somehow—the people that are portrayed in this film as being virtuous and brave are the Ku Klux Klan. (Remember: this is a super crazy racist movie.)

But because we want to give you all the pertinent super crazy racist details, here's what goes down.

Before we start, we'll give you a general cast rundown. The Birth of a Nation follows two families: the Camerons and the Stonemans. The Camerons are hoity-toity Southern aristocrats, while the Stonemans, headed by U.S. senator Austin Stoneman, are Northern carpetbaggers.

Part One

One day, the two Stoneman brothers visit the Camerons in the South for a quick vacay. Phil Stoneman, the eldest, falls in love with Margaret Cameron, while Ben Cameron, the eldest of his family, falls in love with Phil's sister Elsie after seeing a photograph of her—because that's not creepy or anything.

Unfortunately, neither of these romances have a chance to blossom because the Civil War begins, placing the two families on opposite sides of the conflict.

All of the sons go to war, and everyone except Ben and Phil end up dead. Ben's captured by Northern forces and sent to a military hospital, where he finally meets Elsie Cameron, the girl he's been creepily crushing on for years. He gets pardoned by Abraham Lincoln before the war ends.

So Ben returns to Piedmont. The town is pretty messed up and his family is a lot more broke than before, but he's happy to be back. But then the unthinkable happens—Abraham Lincoln is assassinated. With the compassionate president now gone, radical politicians have taken control of Washington and are advocating for harsh punishments against the South for the war. These radical politicos are led by...drumroll, please: Austin Stoneman. (Yup, that's Phil and Elsie's dad.)

  

Part Two

Stoneman sends his biracial protégé Silas Lynch to the South to oversee its reconstruction. Lynch helps the newly-freed slaves employ their right to vote and rebuild their lives. This seems like, you know, the morally responsible thing to do,  but it's depicted as pure evil by the film.

Ben, in particular, seems to hate the new order of things in the South—mostly the fact that he has to show respect to black people. (Remember when we said this movie was deeply, deeply problematic? Yeah: keep remembering that.)

Then, tragedy strikes. Ben's youngest sister Flora is getting spring water from the woods one day when she's followed by a black soldier named Gus who wants to marry her. She freaks. Flora runs through the woods until she reaches a giant cliff and, for some strange reason, decides that her best option is to jump. She dies.

Devastated, Ben gets the idea to form a new organization dedicated to white supremacy and general oppression. Its name is the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan's first order of business is to kill Gus and drop his dead body on Lynch's doorstep. This sparks a mini-war between the two factions. Elsie learns about Ben's involvement and is so furious that she goes back on her promise to marry him.

That's when things really start heating up. Lynch uses Ben's membership in the Klan to arrest his father. Just in the nick of time, however, Phil Stoneman shows up and shoots the arrested soldier, helping the Cameron family make an escape to a tiny cabin owned by two Union veterans. Meanwhile, Lynch captures Elsie, who he has fallen in love with, while Ben gathers the Klan to lead an assault on Piedmont.

Battles ensue at both locations, as racist white folks shoot people for telling them not to be racist. (Sorry—we call 'em like we see 'em.) Unfortunately, the Klan emerges victorious and retakes the city of Piedmont, leaving them free to intimidate black voters and assert their authority with violence.

And that's, uh, supposed to be a happy ending. Yeah, it doesn't make sense to us either. Either way, Elsie and Ben get married, as do Phil and Margaret.

Say it with us, now: super crazy racist movie.

  • Scene 1

    Scene 1

    • We start with some captions asking not to be censored (we think someone doth protest too much), followed by text stating that "the bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion."
    • Well…that's one way to put it. Another way to put it is "slavery was insanely awful and at the top of the list of global atrocities."
    • We're then taken to a slave auction while a preacher prays over an African. Another caption talks about how abolitionists advocated for the freeing of slaves in the 1800's. We see one such revival meeting, replete with weeping parishioners.
    • Another caption describes a "great parliamentary leader" named Austin Stoneman, who rose to power in 1860. We're about to meet him, along with his daughter Elsie.
    • There they are. Elsie is helping Austin delicately place on his wig.
    • We flash forward to find Elsie and her brothers on the family estate in Pennsylvania. The bros are reading a letter from someone named Ben about visiting him in Piedmont, South Carolina.
    • Elsie emerges from the house holding a cat as the brothers send off a response. They scurry away.
  • Scene 2

    Scene 2

    • A caption describes Piedmont as a place "where life runs in a quaintly way that is to be no more." We're meeting the Cameron family—most notably, Ben, the eldest son.
    • We meet his sister Margaret, as she enters a giant mansion. Music swells. This, the filmmakers seem to be saying, is a good place.
    • We also meet Ben's mother, father, and baby sister. They're all chilling. We wonder how they could possibly have so much free time. It probably has nothing to do with being slave-owners or anything like that.
    • There are a lot of shots of pets—like, a lot. We get puppies and kittens galore.
    • Ben's sisters hand him a letter which we can presume to be from the Stoneman bros. Everyone seems excited by the news.
    • The Stoneman brothers arrive and greet the family warmly. One of the brothers is clearly flirting with Margaret.
    • The two younger brothers of the respective families engage in comic banter, making fun of each other's hats and running around the yard. These are adult men, by the way.
  • Scene 3

    Scene 3

    • The older Stonewall brother and Margaret walk by the lake. Ooh la la—romance is in the air (or water).
    • We now cut to the cotton fields, where we see enslaved people working.
    • Ben sees a picture of Elsie that one of the Stoneman brothers is holding and instantly falls in love. Well, that was fast.
    • We cut to the slave quarters for the "two-hour interval" they receive for their twelve-hour work day. Everyone is dancing and not at all upset that they're being brutally subjugated. This seems totally realistic.
  • Scene 4

    Scene 4

    • A text splash describes the "gathering storm" when "the power of the sovereign states [...] is threatened by the new administration."
    • Everyone arrives at the plantation to find Dr. Cameron looking at a newspaper headline. It reads: "If the North carries the election, the South will secede." He seems ticked.
  • Scene 5

    Scene 5

    • We now find ourselves in the Stoneman library as Austin Stoneman meets Charles Sumner, leader of the senate.
    • Stoneman noticeably readjusts his wig as he goes into a tirade. We think that the filmmakers want us to dislike this guy.
    • Stoneman has a mixed-race housekeeper named Lydia Brown who's depicted as dainty and absent-minded. She spits at Sumner and, when he leaves, collapses to the ground.
    • Stoneman enters to room and finds Lydia looking disheveled and teary-eyed. She seems to be implying that Sumner did something uncouth to her.
  • Scene 6

    Scene 6

    • The Stoneman brothers return home. The mustachioed older bro is still dreaming about Margaret.
  • Scene 7

    Scene 7

    • A caption describes Lincoln's first request for 75,000 volunteers for the Northern army.
    • Hey—they have a pretty good Lincoln lookalike. This is the most realistic thing about this movie so far.
    • After signing the order, Lincoln wipes his eyes.
  • Scene 8

    Scene 8

    • Both Stoneman brothers join the army. They say goodbye to Elsie before leaving.
    • We return to Piedmont for the "farewell ball" before the departure of the Southern troops. Fancy white men and ladies are dancing.
    • There's a bonfire in the streets. We see silhouettes of people dancing in front of the flames.
    • The caption describes how the first Confederate flag was unveiled in the aftermath of the Battle of Bull Run. We see people at the party dancing with the flag and toasting to it.
    • The entire town is outside the next morning to see the departure of the troops, which includes the Cameron brothers.
    • Apparently the party is still going on at this point because everyone stops grooving and the men say their goodbyes.
    • We see the military procession head through town as the citizens respond with a zeal typically reserved for the bad guys in an Indiana Jones movie.
  • Scene 9

    Scene 9

    • Elsie returns to Washington and tells her dad that her bros have left for war.
  • Scene 10

    Scene 10

    • Two and a half years later (big jump), we see Ben Cameron receive a letter from his family on the war front.
    • It's from his baby sister. How do we know? It's signed "Sis"—for real. She talks about how much she's grown and compliments him on his mustache—again, seriously.
    • Back at home, Little Sis (that's what we like to call her) reads Ben's letter while clad in a special dress. She stuffs it in her bodice when she's done.
    • Apparently Piedmont is being assaulted by guerillas. The two sisters hear an announcement of one such assault as they leave the house, prompting them to go right back inside.
    • But the doors are locked—uh oh. Daddy Cameron gets them inside just in the nick of time, but the guerilla forces advance all the way to their doorstep.
    • All of the soldiers in this militia are black, save the captain, who the film describes as a white "scalawag" who influences them. There's a lot of subtext there.
    • The girls hole up while Dr. Cameron is shot by members of the militia who are ransacking the house. The girls hide in a secret compartment underneath the floor.
    • The guerillas enter the room where the girls are hiding. They start tearing the place apart, though they still haven't found their hiding spot.
    • It's at this time that Confederate soldiers arrive and retake the city. Before turning tail, the guerillas set the Cameron's house on fire.
    • Wait—Dr. Cameron isn't dead. He just sort of gets up. Weird.
    • The Confederates rescue the lot of them and it doesn't seem like the house has been damaged much, even though it was set on fire.
  • Scene 11

    Scene 11

    • We're back on the warfront. Ben looks at a letter from his family and then a picture of Elsie.
    • It's now a battle between the Union and Confederacy. The younger Cameron and Stoneman bros come across each other and then…immediately get shot and die—all right, then.
    • Both families read the news and are devastated.
    • The Camerons end up selling most of their possessions to fuel the war effort—besides their giant house…and couches. Actually, its' just their overly elaborate dresses and paintings that get sold—how devastating.
    • Meanwhile, Elsie leaves her father's home to become a nurse at a military hospital.
  • Scene 12

    Scene 12

    • A caption describes a "great conqueror" marching towards the sea.
    • We see a mother and her children huddled together in the woods. The camera pans and sees a massive force of soldiers marching along the water, heading towards Atlanta.
    • (This is referring to General Sherman's march across Georgia from Atlanta to Savannah. Sherman is from the North)
    • We watch a chaotic battle scene as "In the Hall of the Mountain King" plays.
    • Confederate soldiers are eating when they're ambushed by Union soldiers. General Lee (he's from the South) organizes a counter-attack.
    • Ben, who's now known as "the little Colonel," joins this charge of Confederate forces.
    • The battle rages. Ben leads his troops against a force led by Phil Stoneman, the older Stoneman brother.
    • The Confederates make forward progress, but lose too many men to have hope for a victory. Ben gives water to a Union soldier who was wounded before leading a last ditch charge.
    • The charge fails, but Phil Stoneman grabs Ben's injured body and pulls him behind the trenches.
    • The North has won the battle.
    • The Camerons receive news that Ben is injured and is currently recuperating in a Washington hospital. The Cameron sisters become furiously angry.
  • Scene 13

    Scene 13

    • As it happens, Ben ends up in the same military hospital where Elsie is working. And by "working" we mean walking around and playing a banjo—really.
    • She sits next to him and sings a song. Ben slowly wakes up and is overcome when he realizes that this is the woman whose picture he fell in love with.
    • She shows him a letter from Phil requesting the best possible treatment for his old friend.
    • Ben shows her the picture of her he's been carrying around this whole time. Oddly, she seems flattered by this rather than thinking that the dude's a crazy stalker. 
    • Mrs. Cameron arrives at the hospital to visit her son, but is barred at the door by a Union soldier. He eventually relents and lets her pass. Mother and son share a tender reunion.
    • Ben's surgeon arrives and says that somebody has been trying to get Ben hanged as an enemy combatant. Nobody's pleased with this news, obviously.
    • Mrs. Cameron and Elsie arrive at Abraham Lincoln's office, because apparently that's an easy thing to do during wartime. She wants a pardon—and she gets one.
    • Ben is psyched about this news. The celebrations can't last long, however, as Mrs. Cameron has to return to Piedmont to take care of her husband, who has fallen sick.
    • Despite this, the Cameron family is overjoyed when they learn that Ben will be a-okay.
  • Scene 14

    Scene 14

    • We cut to the Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865, as General Robert E. Lee surrenders the forces of the Confederacy to General Ulysses S. Grant of the Union.
    • The caption describes this as "the end of state sovereignty" Or the end of the mass enslavement of people—tomato, tohmato, as far as this film's concerned.
    • On this same day, Ben is discharged from the hospital and returns to Piedmont. He shares a long, lingering goodbye with Elsie.
    • The Camerons prepare a (relative) feast for their returning son. The youngest daughter adorns her shabby dress with raw cotton to spruce it up.
    • Ben looks around Piedmont with awe as he approaches his family's front door. His youngest sister greets him and they warmly hug.
  • Scene 15

    Scene 15

    • Mr. Stoneman arrives at Lincoln's office. Stoneman wants the South to be harshly punished for their actions in the war, but Lincoln stops him, explaining that he wants to take a conciliatory approach.
    • The South begins to rebuild. We see the Camerons set up their mansion as a boarding house.
    • And then, the caption reads, comes the "fated night of April 14, 1865."
    • Phil Stoneman arrives at his father's house to take Elsie to the theater. You know who else is going? President Lincoln.
    • Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln arrive at the theater and sit in the balcony. The crowd goes wild.
    • The president's bodyguard leaves his post so he can get a better view. This dude is great at his job.
    • And then it happens—the thing we all knew was coming. John Wilkes Booth creeps into the balcony and shoots Lincoln, leaping onto the stage afterwards and shouting "sic semper tyrannis," which means "thus always to tyrants."
  • Scene 16

    Scene 16

    • At his home, Stoneman is informed of the assassination. Stoneman looks sad but Lydia acts like it's his chance to gain power.
    • The Camerons look pretty upset too. A newspaper reads that the South's "best friend" is now gone.
  • Scene 17

    Scene 17

    • We've now entered the second part of this three-hour movie—phew. This section covers the Reconstruction era of the South.
    • There's also a disclaimer that the film is merely historical and not meant to "reflect on any race or people of today." We'll let the absurdity of that statement sink in.
    • More captions talk about how Northerners entered the South to put white people "under the heel" of black people. Again, we'll just hold on tongues on how blatantly inaccurate that is—whoops, too late. That's insanely inaccurate.
    • Stoneman is described as "the uncrowned king" of Washington. He's shown in his home surrounded by a gaggle of hangers-on.
    • We're introduced to Silas Lynch, a mixed-race man who's Stoneman's protégé. Stoneman then makes the claim that black people and white people are fully equal. Why, we do declare.
    • Senator Sumner argues against this idea, but Stonewall cuts him off. He says that Lynch will become the symbol of this racial equality.
  • Scene 18

    Scene 18

    • Stoneman has fallen ill, so he sends Lynch to the South to organize black voters.
    • There's a long shot of Lynch staring at Else creepily. This movie is getting more racist by the second.
    • Lynch sets up shop in Piedmont—because of course.
    • Lynch establishes the Freedman's Bureau to give free goods to the newly-freed slaves. The movie's caption makes it clear that the filmmakers don't think highly of this idea.
    • Stoneman joins Lynch in Piedmont, accompanied by Elsie. She shares a warm reunion with Ben.
    • Lynch meets Ben and Ben refuses to shake his hand. (And Ben is supposed to be the hero of the movie, guys.)
    • A caption states that Lynch is looking to overthrow Stoneman's power.
  • Scene 19

    Scene 19

    • It's a meeting of the Southern Union League.
    • People seem riled up. Stoneman and Lynch arrive to give speeches.
    • They're doing the unthinkable thing of encouraging black men to use their right to vote—ugh, this movie is so racist.
  • Scene 20

    Scene 20

    • Lynch is beating up a dog (really) when he spots Elsie and Ben flirting. They kiss a bird together (again—really).
    • Later, Phil creeps up on Margaret as she sits in the garden. At least we think it's Phil. All the dudes have moustaches in this movie.
    • Anyway, she rejects his advances.
    • Elsie and Ben almost kiss, but Elsie pulls away at the last second. She does hug him as she cries, however. And then they kiss (okay then).
    • Elsie is overjoyed at this development.
  • Scene 21

    Scene 21

    • It's election day. The caption tells us that all black people were allowed to vote but some white people weren't. (Massive historical inaccuracy alert.)
    • The politicians supported by Northerners and Southern black people end up winning. Lynch becomes the lieutenant governor.
    • Ben is upset. He describes how black judges and juries are winning court cases against white folks. And all these poor white people ever did was own people as slaves.
    • The Camerons' black servant is taken out of house and attacked by a group of black soldiers for not voting on their side. They accidentally kill another man while doing so.
    • The servant tells Ben what happened.
  • Scene 22

    Scene 22

    • A caption describes "the riot in the Master's Hall," which occurred when there were 101 black representatives and 23 white representatives serving in the legislature.
    • The black representatives are depicted as acting in an unprofessional fashion, eating and drinking during sessions.
    • A law is passed that white citizens must salute black soldiers who walk by them on the street. Those poor white folks. Their arms will be so tired.
    • Then they pass a bill that permits interracial marriage. Super-ominous music begins to play. (Our eyes are tired from rolling by this point in the film.)
  • Scene 23

    Scene 23

    • A caption reads that "the grim reaping begins." Just when you thought this movie couldn't get more racist, it...gets more racist.
    • Elsie and the youngest Cameron daughter run outside and play while a black soldier named Gus watches them.
    • The two women run into town and come across Lynch. He hits on Elsie while Ben watches from a distance.
    • Gus creeps after them, paying close attention to the youngest daughter. Ben gives him the stink eye.
  • Scene 24

    Scene 24

    • Ben is in "agony" over the "degradation" of his people. That's probably because being forced to salute black soldiers is equivalent to being violently imprisoned, abused, and forced to work. Yup.
    • He spies two white kids as they hide under bedsheets and scare away a group of black children. This, the caption reads, becomes the "inspiration."
    • Thus begins the Ku Klux Klan, which the film claims "saved the South from the anarchy of black rule." We just can't make this stuff up, folks. This is what happens in this movie.
    • And now we see some Klansmen on horses as they "terrorize" (that's the film's exact words) a black man.
    • Lynch's crew scores the "first blood" in this conflict, however, shooting two Klansmen as they ride away.
    • Lynch returns to the North and show Stoneman the Klan's little cosplay outfits. Stoneman looks angry. He says that he will crush the white South "under the heel" of the black South.
    • Elsie rushes in excitedly and Stoneman shows her the hood. He says that Ben is part of their group.
    • Elsie looks disturbed. She breaks off her engagement with Ben (apparently that happened), but promises not to rat him out.
    • Ben shows his family his little costume all proud-like. He makes them promise not to say anything.
    • Ben's youngest sister heads outside alone to get some water from the spring. As she does, Gus creeps up on her from a distance.
    • Ben leaves the house and follows his sister's path.
    • Gus continues following Little Sis. Finally, he reaches her and tells her that he wants to get married. She hits him and runs away.
    • With Ben in hot pursuit, Gus chases the Cameron sister through the woods.
    • She ends up at the top of the cliff and starts walking closer to the edge, telling Gus that she'll jump if gets any closer.
    • And then…she does. Welp.
    • Ben reaches the cliff and sees his sister's body. She's dead.
    • Everyone is horrified. The movie is careful to show the Camerons' black servants crying too, because that makes racism just perfectly acceptable.
    • Phil shows his father the news in an attempt to change his mind about his tactics.
    • Gus hides in a saloon while Ben assembles a group of his Klan buddies. They want to give him a trial within the "Invisible Empire."
    • One of the Klansmen enters the saloon and brawls with the patrons. He literally picks up one dude and throws him at the rest of the group.
    • The Klansman grabs Gus and pulls him outside, but is shot immediately. Gus leaps onto a horse and runs away, guns blazing.
    • Ben and his buddies grab Gus and pull him away. They bring him to a secret Klan trial, which is intercut with scenes of the Camerons looking at Little Sis's body.
    • Surprise: Gus is found guilty.
    • The Klansmen drop his dead body at the door of Lynch's house.
    • Lynch discovers the body the following morning. He orders a militia of black men to march through the streets.
    • The Klan hosts a meeting to organize their own troops. Ben uses a "fiery cross" as a symbol of their inability to be conquered...and, obviously, a symbol of their insane-o levels of racism.
  • Scene 25

    Scene 25

    • Klansmen from all over the area organize to disarm black people. Meanwhile, Lynch dispatches spies to discover any secret members of the Klan.
    • Lynch decides to "wreak havoc on the Cameron house." Apparently this means that soldiers will enter the house and capture the Cameron patriarch.
    • The Cameron women run upstairs and ask Elsie to get her father to free Dr. Cameron. Meanwhile, the Camerons' servants mount their own rescue effort.
    • The servants blend in with a group of black people who are mocking Dr. Cameron as he's taken away. They attack the soldiers and give Dr. Cameron time to flee, with the help of Phil, who has suddenly appeared.
    • The Camerons, Phil, and their servants hop into a cart and escape.
    • Elsie waits for her father to arrive at the house he shares with Lynch. Meanwhile, Lynch arrives home with a group of ladies.
    • The Camerons' cart has crashed. The group takes cover in a cabin shared by two Union veterans.
    • These people, according to the caption, are united by their "Aryan birthright." Yup—we're in Nazi territory now.
    • Elsie goes to Lynch for help because her father still hasn't shown up. Lynch decides this is a good opportunity to ask for her hand in marriage.
    • She threatens to whip him. Yes—this is our supposed heroine.
    • Lynch responds by showing her the chaos on the streets and saying that he will make her the queen of his "Black Empire." He tells his compatriots to prepare for a wedding. Well, that was quick.
    • Meanwhile, we see Klansmen riding horses through the woods.
    • Just as Lynch is about to kiss a passed-out Elsie, Stoneman arrives. Lynch sets Elsie aside and talks to his boss.
    • He tells him that he wants to marry a white woman and Stoneman pats him on the back.
    • We see an even greater number of Klansmen charge towards the city.
    • Lynch then reveals that it's Elsie who he wants to marry. Stoneman responds angrily and says no.
    • Having awoken, Elsie breaks the window and tries to run outside.
    • Meanwhile, a group of soldiers surround the cabin where the Camerons and Phil are holed up. Dr. Cameron wants to give himself up, but the Union veterans say that they want to fight.
    • On the streets of the town, sympathizers of the KKK are tarred and feathered.
    • Finally, the KKK militia arrives in town and begins attacking the black townspeople.
    • So, we find the historical revisionismabhorrent, but this movie has next-level music cues for its time. "Flight of the Valkyries" begins playing as the battle scene cuts between the streets of Piedmont to the cabin in the woods.
    • Stoneman and Elsie are now being held hostage inside Lynch's house. Seeing that the tide of battle is turning, Lynch grabs Elsie and attempts to escape.
    • He's killed two seconds later by Ben and his fellow Klansmen. At the same time, some Klansmen learn of the Camerons' predicament and give them aid in battle. They fight off the soldiers just as they're about to break down the door.
    • The KKK wins the battle and celebrates. This is supposed to be a big victorious moment, but...you know. It's just so gross.
    • The next election, the KKK intimidates a bunch of black people into not voting. Again, this is supposed to be a big triumphant moment.
  • Scene 26

    Scene 26

    • We jump forward to a "double honeymoon." It looks like both Margaret and Phil and Ben and Elsie are now married (not all together, though).
    • We see a metaphorical embodiment of War attacking a group of wounded people. He disappears and is replaced by Jesus (yes, really) who's chilling with a bunch of happy people in togas.
    • And then the "Star Spangled Banner" plays. The irony is really too much, guys.