It’s human nature for people to gravitate toward stories and media that line up with their perceptions of themselves, their communities, and their interpretation of history. Those stories then pass into popular consciousness, becoming part of the identity of the people, sending ripples through society, sometimes changing it almost irrevocably. One set of such stories was packaged up in the 1915 D.W. Griffith silent film The Birth of a Nation. The film and its extraordinary 120-piece orchestra accompaniment was celebrated as “astounding for its time.” The film was shown in theaters across the country, including the South, charging $2.00 admission—the price for a typical live performance. President Woodrow Wilson – still in mourning for the late Mrs. Wilson – was invited to view the film in a private screening at the White House and believed the film was an authentic telling of history. Griffith, acclaimed for his innovative use of the closeup, editing shots, and dramatic storytelling, is best known for this three-hour film, which remains as controversial today as it was more than a hundred years ago.
The film follows the ups and downs of two families during the Civil War, the Camerons and the Stonemans, the former aligning with the Confederacy and the latter with the Union. The story is told primarily through the lens of the Southern Confederate narrative, giving far more screentime to events such as the volunteers going off to war, the destruction of Atlanta, and the degradation of Southern society. It’s also evident within the first ten minutes that the aim of the film was to romanticize antebellum society, when Southern aristocracy ruled their communities and the black population was enslaved, but happy and submissive. Federal soldiers are interpreted in the film as being cruel to Southerner civilians, and Confederates are shown as benevolent foes, as in the scene when Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) – the male protagonist of the film – runs to the aid of a fallen Union soldier at Petersburg to give him a drink of water before making a final charge that ended with his wounding and capture at the hands of his old friend, Phil Stoneman (Elmer Clifton).
In terms of production design, The Birth of a Nation stands out for the technological innovations it makes to the film medium. As with most silent movies, the acting is over-the-top to fully convey the emotions experienced by the characters through this period of tumultuous history. Few of the slides contain any kind of dialogue, leaving the audience to imagine the words of the players while the slides only explained the context of the scene. The siege of Petersburg sequence alone is a stunning piece of set coordination, as countless extras charge and skirmish across a smoky, fiery battlefield, all viewed from a great height so the audience may understand the scale of a Civil War battle. The Birth of a Nation might always “be considered the film which gave the motion pictures its stature as an art form.” Griffith’s trademark use of narrative filmmaking enthralled audiences who became invested in the characters and story. All twelve reels of its original cut featured 1640 separate shots and titles, employing the use of dramatic closeups and editing techniques such as cross-cut sequencing of parallel actions and the use of montages, that were unprecedented.
The original orchestral score, composed by Joseph Carl Briel was carefully synchronized to the film to avoid any melodies that might be incongruous to the scenes. With coordinated sound effects and distinct character themes spaced out between 214 separate cues, the intended music for The Birth of a Nation alone was impressive to moviegoers who were used to a single piano or no sound at all in the theater. The Los Angeles Times heralded it as “the greatest picture that was ever made and the biggest drama ever filmed.” All of these innovative techniques proved to revolutionize the movie-making industry, and any producer that wanted to top Griffith had to continually work at the craft to make the next film bigger, better, and more engaging than The Birth of a Nation. Between 1915 and 1946 over 200 million Americans viewed this film and its impact can never be understated in the movie industry.
If Griffith had ended his film after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, The Birth of a Nation might have received only as much criticism as Gone With The Wind did two decades later. However, the second part of the film, which covered the Reconstruction Era, outraged the black population, the people who had the most to lose from the shift in society that would come as a result of the film’s showing. Within the first few minutes, the film establishes that blacks were the villains of the story. In the first text slide, it stated that the importation of enslaved Africans sowed the seeds of disunion in America, placing the blame for the war and the societal upheaval on the shoulders of the blacks who were captured and deported against their wills.
Throughout The Birth of a Nation, black—the major roles played by white actors in blackface—and mixed-race characters like Lydia (Mary Alden) and Silas Lynch (George Siegmann) were depicted as heinous, scheming, ignorant, destructive, carnal, and easily beguiled by Northern carpetbaggers and politicians. These traits aligned with the typical white-supremist view of blacks and non-whites as inferior beings that deserved to be subjugated, and that unleashing freemen upon society would only end in the ruin of civilization itself. The only black characters represented in a positive light were Mammy (Jennie Lee)—who is called the “faithful servant” in the opening credits—and her fellow male servant who remained with the Cameron family throughout the film and even assisted in rescuing Dr. Cameron (Spottiswoode Aitken) from imprisonment. By painting this picture of black submission as an admirable virtue, the film portrays the ideal place for freed blacks in society and their relationship with whites.
The fate of Gus (Walter Long), the “renegade negro,” is a case in point. After Congress passed a law that legalized interracial marriage in the movie, Southern whites were appalled and deeply concerned for the fate of its women, now surrounded by lustful freemen. Flora Cameron (Mae Marsh) came under the special attention of Gus and, after a lengthy chase through the South Carolina countryside, Flora committed suicide by jumping off a cliff rather than be caught by a black man. Her death drew the ire of the local Ku Klux Klan, which hunted down Gus and exacted vigilante justice to avenge the honor of the Southern woman—the rationale for much of the terrorist actions carried out by the KKK.
At the hour-and-a-half mark, the film featured several panels that might have been intended to assuage audiences from believing that the film was meant as propaganda. He claimed that the film was meant to be a historical presentation of the war and “not meant to reflect on any race of people of today.” However, it follows this with a nod to President Woodrow Wilson’s History of the American People, which condemned the Reconstruction Era as a means to “put the white South under the heel of the black South” and that the Ku Klux Klan was intended to “protect the Southern country.” Ben Cameron was painted as the leader of the Piedmont KKK, which “Saved the South from the anarchy of black rule.” By the end of the film, it certainly appeared that way. The riotous black mob in the streets of Piedmont were driven out by an army of white-clad masked Klansmen, and Silas Lynch—who was ready to force Elsie Stoneman into marriage—was killed along with countless other blacks who antagonized the Cameron family. The KKK appeared as the heroes who triumphed over Southern Reconstruction and induced the birth of a white supremist nation.
D.W. Griffith and Thomas Dixon, the masterminds behind both the book and movie adaptation, were Southerners who grew up listening to the stories told by their Confederate veteran relatives. Griffith’s father, Jacob, served as a lieutenant colonel in the 1st Kentucky Cavalry, the same unit that escorted the fleeing Confederate government in April of 1865. Dixon’s maternal uncle, Leroy McAfee, ended his military career as a colonel for the 49th North Carolina Infantry and was the inspiration for the protagonist in his nephew’s 1905 play and novel, The Clansman. In addition to stories from the war, Dixon’s father and uncle were members of the North Carolina Ku Klux Klan, allowing Dixon to witness the Klan’s vigilante efforts first-hand throughout his childhood. These stories shaped their world view and colored their telling of this crucial period of American history. Griffith denied being racist, but firmly believed that he was telling the truth about the Southern experience in the latter half of the nineteenth century. When one learns about the principles of early Reconstruction historian William Dunning (that blacks were ignorant and unworthy of social advancement, Southerners were victimized during the Congressional Reconstruction period, and all whites suffered under black suffrage until the rise of the “home rule” movement), the film’s interpretation of history makes sense for the time in which it was made. Modern scholars and historians have since acknowledged the flaws in Dunning’s interpretation, but far too late to be of any benefit to those who had to live through the acceptance of this school of thought.
The KKK, which had all but died out toward the close of Reconstruction, resurged around the release of The Birth of a Nation, leading many to believe that the two events were linked or at least influenced one another. Klan leaders admitted to using shots from the film, such as the massive ride of the Klansman to the aid of Piedmont, as a recruitment tool.
The release of the film met with wide acclaimed, despite – or because of – its blatant white supremist agenda. Those who opposed the film, primarily the black rights activists like W.E.B. Dubois and William Monroe Trotter, were silenced or disregarded. Their predictions that the film would stunt the progress of black rights were validated by a later Harvard University study that evaluated the reception of the film as it was viewed in various counties across the nation, “on average, lynchings… rose fivefold in a month after [the film] arrived.” To this criticism, Griffith wrote, “the public should not be afraid to accept the truth, even though it might not like it” and discredited the black voices that spoke against his film.
The Birth of a Nation became one of the most successful silent films of the age and set a precedent for movies to follow, such as Gone With The Wind, underpinning not only the Lost Cause spawned out of the Civil War, but the racial prejudice that America continues to struggle with today. Though technologically impressive in 1915, the mark this film has left upon pop culture and the media industry is far from a positive one. The harmful themes and ideas presented in the film gave consent to other writers and filmmakers to continue the trend in their own projects, receiving their own level of acclaim for their presentation of life during and following the Civil War. This only helped to reinforce racism and false conceptions of Civil War history to a national audience. The racist ideas presented in the film are beyond dispute and will continue to be deeply problematic for viewers in the following decades, but put within the proper historical context and film historiography, much can still be learned from The Birth of a Nation about society and the movie industry in the early twentieth century.
 Kevin Brownlow, The Parade’s Gone By…. University of California Press, 1968, p. 78
 Arthur Lennig, “Myth and Fact: The Reception of ‘The Birth of a Nation’,” Film History, Vol 16, No. 2, Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting, 2004, p. 119
 Raymond A. Cook, “The Man Behind ‘The Birth of a Nation’,” The North Carolina Historical Review, Vol. 39, No. 4, 1962, p. 519
 Lennig, “Myth and Fact: The Reception of ‘The Birth of a Nation’,” p 118
 Lost Angeles Times, February 9, 1915
 Conrad Pitcher, “D.W. Griffith’s Controversial Film, The Birth of a Nation,” OAH Magazine of History, Vol. 13, No. 3, The Progressive Era, 1999, p. 50
 Birth of a Nation, 1:30:02-37
 Ibid, 2:03:05
 Maxwell Bloomfield, “Dixon’s The Leopard’s Spots: A Study in Popular Racism,” American Quarterly. Vol 16, No. 3, 1964, pp. 387–401
 Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction: Updated Edition, Harper Perennial, pp. xi-xii
The best overview of the influences of the film on the KKK is Maxim Simcovitch’s “The Impact of Griffith’s Birth of a Nation on the Modern Ku Klux Klan,” originally published in the first issue of the Journal of Popular Film and Television (Vol 1, No. 1, 1972), pp. 56-54
 “A Tarnished Silver Screen: How a racist film helped the Ku Klux Klan grow for generations”. The Economist, March 27, 2021.
 David Rylance, “Breech Birth: The Receptions To D.W. Griffith’s The Birth Of A Nation” pp. 1-20 from Australasian Journal of American Studies, Volume 24, No. 2, December 2005, p. 15.