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.
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.)
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.