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The Birth of a Nation Film (12264 hits)

The Birth of a Nation Movie

Background and Summary

The Birth of a Nation, also known as The Clansman, is one of the most negatively and positively influential and controversial films in the history of American cinema. Set during and after the American Civil War and directed by D.W. Griffith, the film was released on February 8, 1915, and was viewed by many as being a promotional tool for the Ku Klux Klan.

It is significant in film history for its innovative technical achievements but also for its controversial promotion of White supremacy and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. The Birth of a Nation is based on Thomas Dixon's The Clansman, a novel and play.

The Plot

This silent film was originally presented in two parts separated by an intermission. The first part depicts pre-Civil War America, introducing two juxtaposed families: the Stonemans from the North, consisting of abolitionist Congress member Austin Stoneman (based on the real-life Reconstruction-era Congress member Thaddeus Stevens), his two sons, and his daughter, Elsie, in opposition to the Camerons, a family from the South including two daughters, Margaret and Flora, and three sons, most notably Ben.

The Stoneman boys visit the Camerons at their South Carolina estate, which represents the old South. The eldest Stoneman boy falls in love with Margaret Cameron, and Ben Cameron idolizes a picture of Elsie Stoneman. When the Civil War begins, all the young men join their respective armies. An all-Black militia led by a white leader ransacks the Cameron house and attempts to rape all the Cameron women, who are rescued by Confederate soldiers after they accost the militia. Meanwhile, the youngest Stoneman and two Cameron boys are killed in the war. Ben is wounded after a heroic battle in which he gains the nickname, "the Little Colonel." The Little Colonel, as he’s called for the rest of the film, is taken to a Northern hospital where he meets Elsie again; she is working there as a nurse. The war ends and Abraham Lincoln is assassinated at Ford's Theater, allowing the father, Austin Stoneman, and other radical congressmen, to "punish" the South for secession with Reconstruction laws.

The second part of the movie depicts the Reconstruction era. Stoneman and his mulatto protégé, Lt. Gov. Silas Lynch, go to South Carolina to promote an agenda of empowering Southern Blacks to vote and circumvent election fraud.

Meanwhile, Ben, inspired by having seen White children pretend to be ghosts to scare-off Black children, devises a plan to reverse perceived powerlessness of Southern Whites and so he forms the KKK. However, his membership in the group angers Elsie. Gus, a murderous former slave who desires White women, crudely proposes marriage to Flora Cameron. She flees to the forest, but is pursued by Gus. Trapped on a precipice and believing she’ll be raped, Flora leaps to her death to avoid Gus.

In response to this incident, the Klan hunts down Gus, lynches him, and leaves his corpse on Silas Lynch's doorstep. In retaliation, Lynch orders a crackdown on the Klan. The Camerons flee and hide out in a small hut that’s home to two former Union soldiers. The soldiers agree to assist their former Southern foes in defending their "Aryan birthright," according to a caption in the movie.

But with Austin Stoneman gone, Lynch tries to persuade Elsie to marry him. Disguised Klansmen observing her situation then leave to get reinforcements. The Klan, now at full strength, rides in their white robes to her rescue and takes the opportunity to kill off as many Blacks as they happen to find. Simultaneously, Lynch's militia surrounds and attacks the hut where the Camerons are hiding, but the Klan saves them. Victorious, the Klansmen celebrate in the streets and the film cuts to a future election where the Klan successfully disenfranchises all Black voters.

The film concludes with a double honeymoon of one of the Stoneman boys with Margaret, and Ben with Elsie. The final frame shows masses oppressed by a mythical god of war suddenly finding themselves at peace under the image of Christ. The final title rhetorically, and with unrealized irony, asks: "Dare we dream of a golden day when the bestial War shall rule no more? But instead— the gentle prince in the Hall of Brotherly Love in the City of Peace."

Adapting the Book

The film was based on two of Thomas Dixon's novels: The Clansman and The Leopard's Spots. At Birth of a Nation’s Los Angeles premiere, it was first entitled The Clansman.

The title was eventually changed to The Birth of a Nation to reflect director Griffith's belief that before the Civil War, the United States was a loose coalition of states antagonistic toward one another. He thought that the Northern victory over the seceded Southern states finally bound the states under one national authority. Because the KKK describes itself, even today, as "the invisible empire," and "the invisible nation," protecting "white womanhood," some have interpreted the film's title to mean, "The Birth of the Invisible Nation."

Griffith, whose father had been a reputed Confederate Army hero, agreed to pay Thomas Dixon $10,000 for the rights to his play The Clansman. The film's unprecedented success made him rich. His budget started at $40,000, but the film finally cost $112,000. To make up for lost capital, tickets to the film cost a record $2, which was ridiculously expensive at that time. The film remained the most profitable movie of all time until it was dethroned by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. The film premiered on February 8, 1915, at Clune's Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles.

The Issues

The film is controversial due to its interpretation of history. A University of Houston historian, Steven Mintz, summarized The Birth of a Nation’s message as follows: “Reconstruction was a disaster, Blacks could never be integrated into White society as equals, and the violent actions of the Ku Klux Klan were justified to reestablish honest government.” To many, the film suggested that the KKK dignifiedly restored order to the post-war South. The South was depicted as endangered by abolitionists, freed slaves and carpetbagging Republicans from the North. This was an exaggeration of the dominant view among White-Americans of the day, chief among them were people who subscribed to the Dunning School theory. The Dunning School view was a theory put forth by Columbia University professor William Archibald Dunning, and it claimed freed slaves, or Black people essentially, were not able to govern themselves and so segregation was necessary.

This interpretation was vehemently disputed by Black scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois and others, who pointed out Blacks' loyalty and contributions during the Civil War years and throughout Reconstruction, including helping to establish universal public education. But such scholar’s well-documented work did not initially get much notice. Still, some historians, such as E. Merton Coulter in his The South Under Reconstruction, published in 1947, maintained the Dunning School view even after World War II.

The moral leadership of the Civil Rights Movement and other social changes created a new generation of historians, for example Eric Foner, who led a major reassessment of Reconstruction. Building on Du Bois' work, but also adding new sources, Foner and others discovered and highlighted achievements of the Black and White Republican collaborations, such as establishment of public education and charitable institutions in the South, and extension of suffrage to all men. Historians also revealed how the then conservative Democratic Party and its affiliated White militias used extensive terrorism, intimidation and outright lynchings and homicide to suppress Blacks and keep them from voting in the 1870s to regain the power they believed they lost because of the Civil War.

And then there are many elements of the film that appear racist and/or wildly stereotypical. For example, Black men were constantly shown lusting after White women, being forceful with them and wanting to rape White women. Black legislators were shown eating chicken and taking off their shoes in the middle of government sessions. Although the film did make use of some Black actors in minor roles, majority of the Black and mixed-race characters were played by White actors in blackface makeup.

The Uproar

The film drew significant protest from the Black community upon its release. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1910, protested premieres of the film in numerous cities. The NAACP also conducted a public education campaign, published articles protesting the film's fabrications, exaggerations and inaccuracies, organized petitions against it, and conducted education hearings where the facts of the war and Reconstruction were taught.

When the film was shown, riots broke out in Boston, Philadelphia and many other cities. Chicago, Denver, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Kansas City and Minneapolis didn’t even allow the film to open. The film's inflammatory overtone was a catalyst for gangs of Whites to randomly attack Blacks, for example, in Lafayette, Ind., after seeing the movie; a White man killed a Black teenager.

Dixon was a former classmate of President Woodrow Wilson at Princeton University. Dixon arranged a screening at the White House, for Wilson, members of his cabinet and their families. Wilson was reported to have commented of the film that "it is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." In Wilson: The New Freedom, Arthur Link quotes Wilson's aide, Joseph Tumulty, who denied that Wilson made that statement and claimed that "the President was entirely unaware of the nature of the play before it was presented and at no time has expressed his approbation of it."

Relentless in publicizing the film, Dixon himself was apparently the source for Wilson’s supposed quote, thought the quote has been reprinted so often that it has taken on a false truth. Dixon went so far as to promote the film as being "federally endorsed." After controversy over the film grew, Wilson wrote that he disapproved of the "unfortunate production." Griffith later responded to the film's negative public reception with his subsequent film, Intolerance, which attacked the institution of slavery.

In 1918, Emmett J. Scott and John W. Noble teamed up to make The Birth of a Race move in response to The Birth of a Nation. This film portrayed a positive image of Blacks. Although the film was slammed by White critics, it was well-received by Black critics and moviegoers who had to attend segregated theaters. And in 1919, director/producer/writer Oscar Micheaux released Within Our Gates, another response. Notably, he reversed a key scene of Griffith's version by depicting a White man assaulting a Black woman.

As late as the 1970s, the KKK continued to use the film as a recruitment tool. And nearly a century later, the film remains controversial. On February 22, 2000, in an article entitled "A Painful Present as Historians Confront a Nation's Bloody Past," staff writer Claudia Kolker wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The end of World War I brought both economic crisis, and an anti-Red fever that extended to minority groups and trade unions. Just three years earlier, a defunct Ku Klux Klan leaped back to life with help from the film Birth of a Nation.”

Film Industry Pioneer

Released in 1915, the film has been credited with being the first feature-length film (that is any film over 60 minutes in length), as well as solidifying the language of cinema. The film ushered in the era of silent movies. In its day, it was the highest grossing film, taking in more than $10 million, an unfathomable amount for people of that time, according to the box cover of the Shepard version of the DVD currently available.

In 1992, the U.S. Library of Congress deemed it "culturally significant" and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. Despite its controversial story, the film has been praised by critics such as Roger Ebert, who said: "The Birth of a Nation is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will, it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil." In essence, Ebert was arguing a case for the cinematic and innovative properties of the film and not for the subject matter per se. In contrast, film blogger Jonathan Lapper contends that it should no longer be considered a great film. In his article, "The Myth of a Nation," Lapper writes that "[M]ost critics [have] developed a pattern of response to the film that continues to this day: praise the film's techniques, deplore the film's content, let technique trump content, declare the film a masterpiece." He argues that it is disingenuous to separate the film's content from its technique.

A sequel was released to theaters one year later, in 1916, called The Fall of a Nation. The film was directed by Dixon; he adapted it from the novel of the same name. The film had three acts and a prologue. Despite its success in the foreign market, the film was not a success among American audiences and is now considered a lost film.

Sources:;;; Merritt, Russell, "Dixon, Griffith, and the Southern Legend." Cinema Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1., 1972; Everson, William K., American Silent Film. New York: Da Capo Press, 1978, p. 78; Foner, Eric, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Harper & Row, 1988;; Woodrow Wilson to Joseph P. Tumulty, Wilson Papers, 33:86, April 28, 1915;; style="background: #f8fcff">

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Tuesday, February 26th 2008 at 5:08PM
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