Civil War Wiki
The Birth of a Nation
theatrical poster
Directed by D. W. Griffith
Produced by D. W. Griffith
Harry Aitken[1]
Written by T. F. Dixon, Jr.
Frank E. Woods
D.W. Griffith
Starring Lillian Gish
Henry B. Walthall
Mae Marsh
Music by Joseph Carl Breil
Cinematography G.W. Bitzer
Editing by D. W. Griffith
Joseph Henabery
James Smith
Rose Smith
Raoul Walsh
Distributed by Epoch Film Co.
Release date(s) February 8, 1915 (1915-02-08) (LA)
Running time 190 minutes (at 16 frame/s)
Country United States
Language Silent film
English titles
Budget $110,000 (est.)
Gross revenue $10,000,000
Preceded by The Avenging Conscience (1914)
Followed by Intolerance (1916)

The Birth of a Nation (premiered with the title The Clansman) is a 1915 silent film directed by D. W. Griffith. Set during and after the American Civil War, the film was based on Thomas Dixon's The Clansman, a novel and play.

The Birth of a Nation was the highest-grossing film of the silent film era, and is noted for its innovative camera techniques and narrative achievements. It has provoked great controversy for promoting white supremacy and positively portraying the "knights" of the Ku Klux Klan as heroes.[2]

Eric M. Armstrong of The Moving Arts Film Journal writes:[3]

...The Birth of a Nation is as revered as it is reviled. Its unparalleled innovation and audacity, technically and narratively, coupled with its unprecedented cultural impact, makes it perhaps the single most important film ever made.


This silent film was originally presented in two parts separated by an intermission. Part 1 depicted pre-Civil War America, introducing two juxtaposed families: the Northern Stonemans, consisting of abolitionist Congressman Austin Stoneman (based on real-life Reconstruction-era Congressman Thaddeus Stevens), his two sons, and his daughter, Elsie, and the Southern Camerons, a family including two daughters (Margaret and Flora) and three sons, most notably Ben.

The Stoneman boys visit the Camerons at their South Carolina estate, representing 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. A black militia (with a white leader) ransacks the Cameron house. The Cameron women are rescued when Confederate soldiers rout the militia. Meanwhile, the youngest Stoneman and two Cameron boys are killed in the war. Ben Cameron is wounded after a heroic battle in which he gains the nickname, "the Little Colonel," by which he is referred to for the rest of the film. The Little Colonel is taken to a Northern hospital where he meets Elsie, who is working there as a nurse. The war ends and Abraham Lincoln is assassinated at Ford's Theater, allowing Austin Stoneman and other radical congressmen to punish the South for secession, using radical measures Griffith depicts as typical of the Reconstruction era.[4]

Part 2 depicts Reconstruction. Stoneman and his "mulatto" protegé, Silas Lynch, go to South Carolina to observe the expanded franchise. Black soldiers parade through the streets. During the election, whites are shown being turned away while blacks stuff the ballot boxes. The newly elected black legislature passes laws requiring white civilians to salute black officers and allowing mixed-race marriages.

Meanwhile, Ben, inspired by observing white children pretending to be ghosts to scare off black children, devises a plan to reverse the perceived powerlessness of Southern whites by forming the Ku Klux Klan. Elsie is angered by his membership in the group.

Then Gus, a former slave who became educated and gained a title of recognition through the army, proposes to marry Flora. Scared by Gus' lascivious advances, she flees into the forest, pursued by Gus. Trapped on a precipice, Flora leaps to her death. In response, the Klan hunts Gus, tries him and finds him guilty, kills him, and leaves his corpse on Lieutenant Governor Silas Lynch's doorstep. In retaliation, Lynch orders a crackdown on the Klan. The Camerons flee from the black militia and hide out in a small hut, home to two former Union soldiers, who agree to assist their former Southern foes in defending their Aryan birthright, according to the caption.

Meanwhile, with Austin Stoneman gone, Lynch tries to force Elsie to marry him. Disguised Klansmen discover her situation and leave to get reinforcements. The Klan, now at full strength, rides to her rescue and takes the opportunity to disperse the rioting negroes. Simultaneously, Lynch's militia surrounds and attacks the hut where the Camerons are hiding, but the Klan saves them just in time. Victorious, the Klansmen celebrate in the streets. The film cuts to the next election where the Klan successfully disenfranchises black voters and disarms the blacks. The film concludes with a double honeymoon of Phil Stoneman with Margaret Cameron and Ben Cameron with Elsie Stoneman. The final frame shows masses oppressed by a mythical god of war suddenly finding peace under the image of Christ. The final title rhetorically 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."



Hooded Klansmen catch Gus, a black man whom the filmmaker described as "a renegade, a product of the vicious doctrines spread by the carpetbaggers." Gus was portrayed in blackface by white actor Walter Long.

The Birth of a Nation began filming in 1914[5] and pioneered such camera techniques as deep focus, jump-cut, cross-cut and facial close-up, which are now considered integral to the industry. It also contains many new cinematic innovations, special effects, and artistic techniques. At the time, it shattered both box office and film-length records, running three hours and ten minutes. It was voted one of the "Top 100 American Films" (# 44) by the American Film Institute in 1998.

The film was based on Thomas Dixon's novels The Clansman and The Leopard's Spots. Griffith, whose father served as a colonel in the Confederate Army, agreed to pay Thomas Dixon $10,000 for the rights to his play The Clansman. Since he ran out of money and could afford only $2,500 of the original option, Griffith offered Dixon 25 percent interest in the picture. Dixon reluctantly agreed. The film's unprecedented success made him rich. Dixon's proceeds were the largest sum any author had received for a motion picture story and amounted to several million dollars.

Griffith's budget started at US$40,000, but the film finally cost $112,000[6] (the equivalent of $2.41 million in 2010).[7] As a result, Griffith had to seek new sources of capital for his film. A ticket to the film cost a record $2 (the equivalent of $42.07 in 2008).[7] It was the most profitable film in history until it was dethroned by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937.

West Point engineers provided technical advice on the Civil War battle scenes. They provided Griffith with the artillery used in the film.[8]

The film premiered on February 8, 1915, at Clune's Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles.

At its premiere the film was entitled The Clansman but the title was later changed to The Birth of a Nation to reflect Griffith's belief that the United States emerged out of the American Civil War and Reconstruction as a unified nation.[9]

The film is currently in the public domain.[10]


The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1909, protested premieres of the film in numerous cities. It also conducted a public education campaign, publishing articles' protesting the film's fabrications and inaccuracies, organizing petitions against it, and conducting education on the facts of the war and Reconstruction.[11]

When the film was shown, riots broke out in Boston, Philadelphia and other major cities. Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, Missouri, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, Missouri refused to allow the film to open. The film's inflammatory character was a catalyst for gangs of whites to attack blacks. In Template:USCity, after seeing the movie, a white man murdered a black teenager.[12]

Thomas Dixon, author of the source play The Clansman, was a former classmate of President Woodrow Wilson at Johns Hopkins 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 Wilson said this and also claims 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."[13] However, Woodrow Wilson's History of the American People explained the Ku Klux Klan of the late 1860s as the natural outgrowth of Reconstruction, a lawless reaction to a lawless period. Wilson noted that the Klan "began to attempt by intimidation what they were not allowed to attempt by the ballot or by any ordered course of public action."[14] In the film, approbation for the Klan, citing Wilson's History, is directly quoted.

Relentless in publicizing the film, Dixon was apparently the source for the quotation. It has been repeated so often in print that it has taken on a separate life. Dixon went so far as to promote the film as "Federally endorsed". After controversy over the film had grown, Wilson wrote that he disapproved of the "unfortunate production."[15] D. W. Griffith responded to the film's negative critical reception with his next film Intolerance.

In 1918 Emmett J. Scott helped produce and John W. Noble directed The Birth of a Race in response. Also in 1919, director/producer/writer Oscar Micheaux released Within Our Gates, another response. Notably, he reversed a key scene of Griffith's film by depicting a white man assaulting a black woman.

Ideology and accuracy[]


Woodrow Wilson's History of the American People is quoted in The Birth of a Nation.

The film is controversial due to its interpretation of history. University of Houston historian Steven Mintz summarizes its 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.[16] The film suggested that the Ku Klux Klan restored order to the post-war South, which was depicted as endangered by abolitionists, freedmen, and carpetbagging Republican politicians from the North. This reflects the so-called Dunning School of historiography.[17]

W. E. B. Du Bois and other black historians vigorously disputed this interpretation when the film was released. Most historians of all backgrounds today agree with them, as they note African Americans' loyalty and contributions during the Civil War years and Reconstruction, including the establishment of universal public education. Some historians, such as E. Merton Coulter in his The South Under Reconstruction (1947), maintained the Dunning School view after World War II. Today the Dunning School position is largely seen as a product of anti-black racism of the early twentieth century, by which many Americans held that black Americans were unequal as citizens.

Veteran film reviewer Roger Ebert wrote,

... stung by criticisms that the second half of his masterpiece was racist in its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan and its brutal images of blacks, Griffith tried to make amends in Intolerance (1916), which criticized prejudice. And in "Broken Blossoms" he told perhaps the first interracial love story in the movies--even though, to be sure, it's an idealized love with no touching.[18]

Despite some similarities between the Congressman Stoneman character and Rep. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, Rep. Stevens did not have the family members described and did not move to South Carolina during Reconstruction. He died in Washington, DC in 1868.

The depictions of mass Klan paramilitary actions do not seem to have historical equivalents, although there were incidents in 1871 where Klan groups traveled from other areas in fairly large numbers to aid localities in disarming local companies of the all-black portion of the state militia under various justifications prior to the eventual Federal troop intervention and the organized Klan's continued activities as small groups of "night riders".[19]

The civil rights movement and other social movements created a new generation of historians, such as scholar Eric Foner, who led a reassessment of Reconstruction. Building on Du Bois' work but also adding new sources, they focused on achievements of the African American and white Republican coalitions, such as establishment of universal public education and charitable institutions in the South and extension of suffrage to black men. In response, the Southern-dominated Democratic Party and its affiliated white militias used extensive terrorism, intimidation and outright assassinations to suppress African-American leaders and voting in the 1870s and to regain power.[20]


Released in 1915, the film has been credited with securing a successful future of feature-length films (any film over 60 minutes in length) and of the film industry itself, as well as solidifying the visual language of cinema.

In its day, it was the highest-grossing film, taking in more than $10 million, according to the box cover of the Shepard version of the DVD (equivalent to $200 million in 2007).[7]

The website Rotten Tomatoes, which compiles reviews from various sources, indicates the film has a 100% "fresh" (positive) rating.[21]

In 1992 the United States Library of Congress deemed the film "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. Despite its controversial story, the film has been praised by film 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 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."[22]

According to a 2002 article in the Los Angeles Times, the film facilitated the refounding of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.[23] As late as the 1970s, the Ku Klux Klan continued to use the film as a recruitment tool.

American Film Institute recognition

  • AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies #44


  • Spottiswoode Aitken
  • Mary Alden
  • George Beranger
  • Monte Blue
  • Bobby Burns
  • David Butler
  • Peggy Cartwright
  • Robert Cheek
  • Elmer Clifton
  • Lenore Cooper
  • Miriam Cooper
  • Donald Crisp
  • Josephine Crowell
  • Doris Doscher
  • Charles Eagle Eye
  • Kevin Flavin
  • John Ford
  • Howard Gaye
  • Lillian Gish
  • Gibson Gowland
  • Sam De Grasse
  • Olga Grey
  • Robert Harron

  • Joseph Henabery
  • Russell Hicks
  • Alberta Lee
  • Jennie Lee
  • Ralph Lewis
  • Elmo Lincoln
  • Walter Long
  • Mae Marsh
  • Eugene Pallette
  • Vester Pegg
  • Wallace Reid
  • Alma Rubens
  • George Siegmann
  • Maxfield Stanley
  • Charles Stevens
  • Madame Sul-Te-Wan
  • Raoul Walsh
  • Henry B. Walthall
  • Jules White
  • Violet Wilkey
  • Tom Wilson
  • Mary Wynn


A sequel called The Fall of a Nation was released to theaters one year later, in 1916. The film was directed by Thomas Dixon, who adapted it from the novel of the same name. The film has three acts and a prologue.[24] Despite its success in the foreign market, the film was not a success among the American audiences.[25] It is considered a lost film.

Internet Versions[]

Many[citation needed] online copies omit three opening cards the 2nd and 3rd of which read

A PLEA FOR THE ART OF THE MOTION PICTURE: We do not fear censorship, for we have no wish to offend with improprieties or obscenities, but we do demand, as a right, the liberty to show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue - the same liberty that is conceded to the art of the written word - that art to which we owe the Bible and the works of Shakespeare


If in this work we have conveyed to the mind the ravages of war to the end that war may be held in abhorrence, this effort will not have been in vain.

Other title cards have variant text.

In popular culture[]

In 2009, Michael Stein was commissioned by the New School University to compose an original film score for The Birth of a Nation. It was premiered on September 26, 2009 at the New School's Tishman Auditorium.

In 2007, DJ Spooky remixed Griffith's film as Rebirth of a Nation.[26]

David Robertson's novel Booth includes a passage in which the film is shown at the Old Grover's National Theatre in Washington in 1916, providing a key plot point.

Jim Morrison refers to the film in his song "Peace Frog" on the 1970 album Morrison Hotel by The Doors.

A clip is used in Forrest Gump to include the protagonist's relative.[citation needed]

In an episode of Everybody Hates Chris, when Chris's family gets a TV recorder, Corusso gives Chris and his family a copy of the movie.[citation needed]

See also[]



  1. D. W. Griffith: Hollywood Independent
  2. MJ Movie Reviews - Birth of a Nation, The (1915) by Dan DeVore
  3. Armstrong, Eric M. (February 26, 2010). "Revered and Reviled: D.W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’". The Moving Arts Film Journal. Retrieved April 13, 2010. 
  4. Griffith followed the then-dominant Dunning School or "Tragic Era" view of Reconstruction presented by early 20th century historians such as William Archibald Dunning and Claude G. Bowers. Stokes 2007, pp. 190–191.
  5. Film History Timeline
  6. William K. Everson, American Silent Film. New York: Da Capo Press, 1978, p. 78
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Consumer Price Index calculator at Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis website
  8. Seelye, Katharine Q. "When Hollywood's Big Guns Come Right From the Source", The New York Times, 10 June 2002.
  9. Dirks, Tim, The Birth of a Nation, Retrieved May 27, 2010.
  10. "Birth of a Nation" at the Internet Archive Retrieved August 2, 2009
  11. NAACP - Timeline
  12. The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow . Jim Crow Stories . The Birth of a Nation | PBS
  13. Letter from J. M. Tumulty, secretary to President Wilson, to the Boston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, quoted in Link, Wilson.
  14. Woodrow Wilson, A History of the American People (1931) V:59.
  15. Woodrow Wilson to Joseph P. Tumulty, April 28, 1915 in Wilson, Papers, 33:86.
  16., Digital History.
  17. Stokes 2007, pp. 190–191.
  19. West, Jerry Lee. The Reconstruction Ku Klux Klan in York County, South Carolina, 1865-1877 (2002) p. 67
  20. Nicholas Lemann, Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War. New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 2006, p. 150-154
  21. "The Birth of a Nation Movie Reviews". Rotten Tomatoes. IGN Entertainment, Inc. Retrieved 2008-07-19. 
  22., "The Birth of a Nation" by Roger Ebert.
  23., A Painful Present as Historians Confront a Nation's Bloody Past.
  24. The Fall of a Nation (1916) at the Internet Movie Database
  25. Slide, Anthony (2004). American Racist: The Life and Films of Thomas Dixon. University Press of Kentucky. pp. 102. ISBN 0813123283. 


  • Addams, Jane, in Crisis: A Record of Darker Races, X (May 1915), 19, 41, and (June 1915), 88.
  • Brodie, Fawn M. Thaddeus Stevens, Scourge of the South (New York, 1959) p. 86-93. Corrects the historical record as to Dixon's false representation of Stevens in this film with regard to his racial views and relations with his housekeeper.
  • Chalmers, David M. Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan (New York: 1965) p. 30 *Cook, Raymond Allen. Fire from the Flint: The Amazing Careers of Thomas Dixon (Winston-Salem, N.C., 1968).
  • Franklin, John Hope, "Propaganda as History" pp. 10–23 in Race and History: Selected Essays 1938-1988 (Louisiana State University Press: 1989); first published in The Massachusetts Review 1979. Describes the history of the novel, The Clan and this film.
  • Franklin, John Hope, Reconstruction After the Civil War, (Chicago, 1961) p. 5-7
  • Korngold, Ralph, Thaddeus Stevens. A Being Darkly Wise and Rudely Great (New York: 1955) pp. 72–76. corrects Dixon's false characterization of Stevens' racial views and of his dealings with his housekeeper.
  • Hodapp, Christopher L., VonKannon, Alice, Conspiracy Theories & Secret Societies For Dummies, (Hoboken: Wiley, 2008) p. 235-6
  • Leab, Daniel J., From Sambo to Superspade, (Boston, 1975) p. 23-39
  • New York Times, roundup of reviews of this film, March 7, 1915.
  • The New Republica, II (March 20, 1915), 185
  • Simkins, Francis B., "New Viewpoints of Southern Reconstruction," Journal of Southern History, V (February, 1939), pp. 49–61.
  • Stokes, Melvyn, D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation: A History of "The Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time" (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). The latest study of the film's making and subsequent career.
  • Williamson, Joel, After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina During Reconstruction (Chapel Hill, 1965). This book corrects Dixon's false reporting of Reconstruction, as shown in his novel, his play and this film.

External links[]

Template:D.W. Griffith's films Template:Racism topics

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