D.W. Griffith, The Birth of a Nation (1915)

In D.W. Griffith's masterpiece, two families -- the Stonemans from the North and the Camerons from the South -- experience the Civil War and Reconstruction. Through these families' stories, Griffith addresses the devastation wrought by the Civil War (especially in the South) and the social disruptions caused by Reconstruction. Griffith adapted the film from a propaganda piece about the Ku Klux Klan, The Clansman, written by Thomas Dixon. D.W. Griffith, a Southerner and the son of a Confederate War cavalry officer who returned from the war a broken man only to "suffer the disgrace of Reconstruction," blamed Reconstructionists and Southern blacks for his own misfortunes. This film reflects that resentment by depicting radical Republicans and "uppity" African-Americans as the cause of all social, political, and economic problems since the Civil War.

When Griffith released the film in 1915, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (or NAACP) and other groups protested; the NAACP published a 47-page pamphlet titled "Fighting a Vicious Film: Protest Against The Birth of a Nation," in which they referred to the film as "three miles of filth." W. E. B. Du Bois published scathing reviews in The Crisis, spurring a heated debate among the National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures as to whether the film should be shown in New York. However, President and former history professor Woodrow Wilson viewed the film at the White House and proclaimed it not only historically accurate, but like "history writ with lightning." Like Woodrow Wilson, many whites felt it a truthful and accurate portrayal of racial politics, so much so that they flocked to join the rejuvenated Ku Klux Klan. The years after Griffith released The Birth of a Nation saw massive race riots throughout the country, peaking especially in the North in 1919; many historians lay the blame for this racial conflict on Griffith's The Birth of a Nation.

The Birth of a Nation is a complex artifact of its times. Several noteworthy themes run through the film, and it especially sheds light on the construction of categories of identity -- race, class, gender, and region -- during the early twentieth century. As you view the film, note the connections that Griffith makes.

Questions to Think About:

1) What is Griffith's perspective on the Civil War? What are examples of the pastoral idealism of Griffith's portrayal of Antebellum plantation life? Where did his ideas come from? Given what you already know about the Civil War and Reconstruction, how does this film illustrate the dangers of using films as documents rather than artifacts?

2) How "historically accurate" is this film? What does Griffith do to indicate that it is historically accurate?

3) Why does the construction of "womanhood" play such a central role in Griffith's vision? How does this reflect early twentieth-century views about gender roles and categories? Pay attention to Griffith's depictions of women (Northern vs. Southern, white vs. mixed-race, white vs. African-American, African-American vs. mixed-race).

4) How does Griffith portray African-Americans in the film? Pay attention to Griffith's depictions of African-Americans (note also that Griffith cast white actors and actresses to play all African-American characters who came into close contact with white actresses to avoid "racial pollution"); can the African-American characters be categorized into "types"?

5) What are the differences between those Griffith depicts as "good blacks" and as "bad blacks"--what Griffith terms "faithful souls" and "renegades"--and what light does that shed on his construction of race and racial relations? What are "good women" and how does he illustrate his ideals (and present foils to those ideals)? Why does Griffith uses threats of rape and depictions of sexuality to illustrate racial politics?

6) How does Griffith represent historical change in the film? Examine Griffith's contrast between antebellum and postbellum African-American behavior ("renegades" versus "faithful souls"), for example. Also notice how Griffith contrasts Abraham Lincoln and northern patriarch, Austin Stoneman (who represents Reconstruction politician Thaddeus Stevens) and Griffith's depiction of the Ku Klux Klan as heroic.

7) How does the film reflect scientific racism and posit the perceived "dangers" of racial mixture?

8) The Birth of a Nation clearly belittles African-Americans and perpetuates many racist stereotypes. In 1915, showings of the film resulted in a resurgence of Klan membership and resultant violence against African-Americans. Today many people, including several historians, believe that this film should not be shown in public. As historians, how do we deal with this issue responsibly? Should The Birth of a Nation ever be shown? Why? How?

Further resources for studying The Birth of a Nation:

A page on D. W. Griffith, produced by Silents Majority, a silent film study group in California (www.mdle.com/ClassicFilms/BTC/direct5.htm)

Re-examining Birth of a Nation, by Diane MacIntyre (www.mdle.com/ClassicFilms/FeaturedVideo/birth.htm)

David B. Pearson's Birth of a Nation Site (www.uno.edu/~drcom/Griffith/Birth/index.html), part of his D.W. Griffith Site (www.uno.edu/~drcom/Griffith/) at the University of New Orleans.

The Internet Movie Database's brief biography of D. W. Griffith (us.imdb.com/Name?Griffith,+D.W.)

Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender courses in The Department of History, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York. Send email to [email protected]
Last modified: Monday 11 June 2001