The Birth of a Nation

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The Birth of a Nation is really an elaborate justification of mass murder. The film cannot possibly admit this, which is why we are immediately placed at the mercy of a plot labyrinthine and preposterous…
—James Baldwin[1]:45

The Birth of a Nation is a 1915 white supremacist propaganda silent drama film, directed by D. W. Griffith, that led to the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan — which, at that point, had been mostly inactive since 1872. It was adapted from two novels by Thomas Dixon Jr. that chronicled the American Civil War and Reconstruction from a pro-Confederate point of view, The Clansman (1905)[2] and The Leopard's Spots (1902).[3][4]:79-80


Despite being a white supremacist propaganda film, The Birth of a Nation is considered to be a landmark in the history of cinema, to an extent. Seen in historical context however, many of the film innovations credited to Griffith were more evolutionary than revolutionary, with Griffith putting many earlier techniques together in a single film.[4]:280-281 The film was the first American 12-reel film ever made and, at three hours, also the longest up to that point.[5] Its plot, part fiction and part history, chronicles the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth and the relationship of two families in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras over the course of several years—the pro-Union Stonemans and the pro-Confederacy Camerons.

The film was also was the first motion picture to be screened inside the White House, viewed there by President Woodrow Wilson (who was notoriously pro-white supremacy), his family, and members of his cabinet.


See the main article on this topic: Racism

The film was also the first to perpetuate several fictions of the Lost Cause of the South mythos,[4]:6,178-186 and also perpetuated racial prejudice.[4]:140 At the time of its first release, the racism and historical falsities were challenged by the NAACP and others, and attempts were made to suppress the film.[4]:6 Some of the protests may have been counter-productive by increasing public interest in the film (Streisand effect).[4]:6,129-170,278 Although there had long been stereotypes of African Americans in film before The Birth of a Nation, the film introduced a new stereotype to film, the "black buck" (or "black brute").[6]:10

The film's three primary villains are all either mixed race (referred to as "mulatto" or "negro" in the credits), Lydia and Silas Lynch, or an African American who wants to marry a white woman (Gus).[7]:t 1:57[4]:217 All three are portrayed by white actors in blackface.[8] The film both reflected contemporary anxiety about mixed-race marriages and reinforced fear about them.[4]:217


"Hang on fellas, I'm only pretending to be black!
See the main article on this topic: Lynching

A key plot element involves the perpetuation of the black brute stereotype, in which Gus, a freed African American and former Union soldier (portrayed by a white actor in blackface), proposes marriage to a white woman, Elsie Stoneman. Gus is rebuffed by Elsie, Gus refuses to take no for an answer, and chases Elsie through the forest, implying to some viewers an attempted rape. Elsie leaps off a cliff to her death. The Klan later catches Gus, convicts him in a kangaroo court, and lynches him.

It was known that there were some specific scenes that were filmed but not included in the final film, but there was also a persistent rumor that a rape scene had been filmed between Gus and Elsie but not included. It was not until 1974 that Karl Brown, the assistant cameraman, said unequivocally that no such scene had been filmed.[4]:104[9]:125 The persistence of the rumor can reasonably be attributed to widespread but erroneous belief that lynchings were primarily associated with accusations of sexual assault.[10][11][12]:130-121


The greatest tragedy of them all was that this film, no matter how good or bad it might have been or still is, led to the return of the KKK, which was reorganized under the leadership of William Joseph Simmons at a summit in Stone Mountain, Georgia mere months after the film's release. This was the version of the Klan that adopted antisemitism, anti-Catholicism, the full-body white robes, and the practice of cross burning. Whether or not the Klan would have returned on its own is up for debate, but The Birth of a Nation was what ignited the spark of the Klan's revival, and thus set in motion the golden age of white supremacy… and all the hatred, destruction, and suffering that came with it.

The Other Birth of a Nation[edit]

Another film called The Birth of a Nation was made in 2016, and was written, directed by, and starring Nate Parker.[13]

It is not a remake or retelling of the original film, instead being about the real life Nat Turner,Wikipedia who led a slave revolt in 1831. However, it was named after the original film in an attempt to reclaim the title from one of the most racist films in history.[14]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. The Devil Finds Work: An Essay by James Baldwin (1976) Dial Press. ISBN 0803719167.
  2. The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan by Thomas Dixon Jr. (1905) Doubleday, Page & Company.
  3. The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden, 1865–1900 ' by Thomas Dixon Jr. (1902) Doubleday, Page & Co.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation: A History of "The Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time" by Melvyn Stokes (2007) Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195336798.
  5. Hubbert, Julie (2011). Celluloid Symphonies: Texts and Contexts in Film Music History. University of California Press. pp. 12. ISBN 978-0-520-94743-6. 
  6. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films by Donald Bogle (1994) Continuum, 3rd edition. ISBN 0826405789.
  7. The Birth Of A Nation (1915) Internet Archive.
  8. The Birth of a Nation IMDb.
  9. The Birth of a nation: A Formal Shot-by-Shot Analysis Together with Microfiche by John Cuniberti (1979) Research Publications, Inc. ISBN 0892350164.
  10. Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1918 (1919) National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
  11. Dyer Anti-lynching Bill by Randy Stakeman and Jackson Stakeman The Walter White Project, University of Southern California.
  12. How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley (2018) Random House. ISBN 9780525511830.
  13. The Birth of a Nation (2016),
  14. Soheil Rezayazdi, Five Questions with the Birth of a Nation Director Nate Parker. Filmmaker Magazine, 25 January 2016.