The Birth of a Nation

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The Birth of a Nation
Birth of a Nation theatrical poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by D. W. Griffith
Produced by D. W. Griffith
Harry Aitken[1]
Screenplay by D. W. Griffith
Frank E. Woods
Based on The Clansman
by T. F. Dixon Jr.
Starring Lillian Gish
Mae Marsh
Henry B. Walthall
Miriam Cooper
Ralph Lewis
George Siegmann
Walter Long
Music by Joseph Carl Breil
Cinematography G. W. Bitzer
Edited by D. W. Griffith
David W. Griffith Corp.
Distributed by Epoch Producing Co.
Release dates
  • February 8, 1915 (1915-02-08)
Running time
12 reels
133–193 minutes[2]
Country United States
Language Silent film
English intertitles
Budget >$100,000[3]
Box office unknown; estimated $50–100 million[4]
The Birth of a Nation (1915), directed and produced by Griffith who also co-wrote the screenplay with Frank E. Woods, which they adapted for the screen from the novel and play The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan by Thomas Dixon Jr. Collection National Film Registry.
Griffith on the set of The Birth of a Nation (1915) with actor Henry Walthall and others.

The Birth of a Nation (originally called The Clansman) is a 1915 American silent epic drama film directed and co-produced by D. W. Griffith and starring Lillian Gish. The screenplay is adapted from the novel and play The Clansman, both by Thomas Dixon Jr. Griffith co-wrote the screenplay (with Frank E. Woods), and co-produced the film (with Harry Aitken). It was released on February 8, 1915.

Three hours long,[5] the film was originally presented in two parts separated by an intermission; it was the first 12-reel film in the United States. The film chronicles the relationship of two families in the American Civil War and Reconstruction era over the course of several years: the pro-Union Northern Stonemans and the pro-Confederacy Southern Camerons. The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth is dramatized.

The film was a commercial success, though it was highly controversial for its portrayal of black men (many played by white actors in blackface) as unintelligent and sexually aggressive towards white women, its promotion of white supremacy, and the portrayal of the first incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) (whose original founding is dramatized) as a heroic force.[6][7] There were widespread negro protests against The Birth of a Nation, such as in Boston, while thousands of white Bostonians flocked to see the film.[8] The NAACP spearheaded an unsuccessful campaign to ban the film.[8] Griffith's indignation at efforts to censor or ban the film motivated him to produce Intolerance the following year.[9] The film has been increasingly condemned by the political left in association with the ongoing cultural revolution otherwise known as the "Great Awokening".

The film's release is also credited as being one of the events that inspired the formation of the "second era" Ku Klux Klan at Stone Mountain, Georgia, in the same year. The Birth of a Nation, along with the trial and lynching of Leo Frank for the 1913 murder of Mary Phagan in Atlanta, was used as a recruiting tool for the KKK.[10] Under President Woodrow Wilson, it was the first American motion picture to be screened at the White House.[11]

Griffith's innovative techniques and storytelling power have made The Birth of a Nation one of the landmarks of film history.[12][13] 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.


Part 1: Civil War of United States

The film follows two juxtaposed families. One is the Northern Stonemans: abolitionist U.S. Representative Austin Stoneman (based on the Reconstruction-era Representative Thaddeus Stevens[14][15]), his daughter, and two sons. The other is the Southern Camerons: Dr. Cameron is married to his wife, Mrs. Cameron. The couple also has three sons and two daughters.

Phil, the elder Stoneman son, falls in love with Margaret Cameron, during the brothers' visit to the Cameron estate in South Carolina, representing the Old South. Meanwhile, young Ben Cameron idolizes a picture of Elsie Stoneman.

During the Civil War, the young men from both families enlist in their respective armies for the war. The younger Stoneman and two of the Cameron brothers are killed in the war. Meanwhile, the Cameron women are rescued by Confederate soldiers who rout a Black militia, after an attack on the Cameron home. Ben Cameron leads a heroic charge at the Siege of Petersburg, earning the nickname of "the Little Colonel". But he is also wounded and captured. He is then taken to a Union hospital in Washington, D.C. During his stay at the hospital, he is told that he will be hanged. Also at the hospital, he meets Elsie Stoneman, whose picture he has been carrying; she is working there as a nurse. Elsie takes Cameron's mother, who had traveled to Washington to tend her son, to see Abraham Lincoln, and Mrs. Cameron persuades the President to pardon Ben.

When Lincoln is assassinated at Ford's Theater, his conciliatory postwar policy expires with him. In the wake of the president's death, Austin Stoneman and other Radical Republicans are determined to punish the South, employing harsh measures that Griffith depicts as having been typical of the Reconstruction era.[16]

Part 2: Reconstruction

Stoneman and his protégé Silas Lynch, a mulatto exhibiting psychopathic tendencies,[17] head to South Carolina to observe the implementation of Reconstruction policies firsthand. During the election, in which Lynch is elected lieutenant governor, blacks are observed stuffing the ballot boxes, while many Whites are denied the vote. The newly elected, mostly black members of the South Carolina legislature are shown at their desks displaying inappropriate behavior, such as one member taking off his shoe and putting his feet up on his desk, and others drinking liquor and feasting on stereotypically negro fare such as fried chicken.

Meanwhile, inspired by observing white children pretending to be ghosts to scare black children, Ben fights back by forming the Ku Klux Klan. As a result, Elsie, out of loyalty to her father, breaks off her relationship with Ben. Later, Flora Cameron goes off alone into the woods to fetch water and is followed by Gus, a freedman and soldier who is now a captain. He confronts Flora and tells her that he desires to get married. Frightened, she flees into the forest, pursued by Gus. Trapped on a precipice, Flora warns Gus she will jump if he comes any closer. When he does, she leaps to her death. Having run through the forest looking for her, Ben has seen her jump; he holds her as she dies, then carries her body back to the Cameron home. In response, the Klan hunts down Gus, tries him, finds him guilty, and lynches him.

Lynch then orders a crackdown on the Klan after discovering Gus' murder. He also secures the passing of legislature allowing mixed-race marriages. Dr. Cameron, Ben's father, is arrested for possessing Ben's Klan regalia, now considered a crime punishable by death. He is, however, rescued by Phil Stoneman and a few of his black servants. Together they flee, along with Margaret Cameron. When their wagon breaks down, they make their way through the woods to a small hut that is home to two sympathetic former Union soldiers who agree to hide them. As an intertitle states, "The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright."

Congressman Stoneman leaves to avoid being connected with Lt. Gov. Lynch's crackdown. Elsie, learning of Dr. Cameron's arrest, goes to Lynch to plead for his release. Lynch, who had been lusting after Elsie, tries to force her to marry him, which causes her to faint. Stoneman returns, causing Elsie to be placed in another room. At first, Stoneman is happy when Lynch tells him he wants to marry a white woman, but is then angered when Lynch tells him that it is Stoneman's daughter. Undercover Klansmen spies discover Elsie's plight when she breaks a window and cries out for help, and the Klansmen go to get help. Elsie falls unconscious again, and revives while gagged and being bound. The Klan, gathered together at full strength and with Ben leading them, rides in to gain control of the town. When news about Elsie reaches Ben, he and others go to her rescue. Elsie frees her mouth and screams for help. Lynch is captured. Victorious, the Klansmen celebrate in the streets. Meanwhile, Lynch's militia surrounds and attacks the hut where the Camerons are hiding. The Klansmen, with Ben at their head, race in to save them just in time. The next election day, blacks find a line of mounted and armed Klansmen just outside their homes, and are intimidated into not voting.

The film concludes with a double wedding as Margaret Cameron marries Phil Stoneman and Elsie Stoneman marries Ben Cameron. The masses are shown oppressed by a giant warlike figure who gradually fades away. The scene shifts to another group finding peace under the image of Jesus Christ. The penultimate title is: "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 described in the film 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 and pioneered such camera techniques as close-ups, fade-outs, and a carefully staged battle sequence with hundreds of extras made to look like thousands.[18] It also contained many new artistic techniques, such as color tinting for dramatic purposes, building up the plot to an exciting climax, dramatizing history alongside fiction, and featuring its own musical score written for an orchestra.[19]

The film was based on Thomas Dixon, Jr.'s novels The Clansman and The Leopard's Spots. It was originally to have been shot in Kinemacolor but D. W. Griffith took over the Hollywood studio of Kinemacolor and Kinemacolor's plans to film Dixon's novel. Griffith, whose father served as a colonel in the Confederate Army, agreed to pay Thomas Dixon $10,000 (equivalent to $236,246 today) 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, and the unprecedented success of the film 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.[19]

Griffith's budget started at US$40,000[19] (equivalent to $940,000 today) but rose to over $100,000[3] (the equivalent of $2,340,000 in constant dollars).[20]

West Point engineers provided technical advice on the Civil War battle scenes. They provided Griffith with the artillery used in the film.[21] Some scenes from the movie were filmed on the porches and lawns of Homewood Plantation in Natchez, Mississippi.[22]

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 from the American Civil War and Reconstruction as a unified nation.[23]

The film is in the public domain.[24]


Sheet music for "The Perfect Song", one of the themes Breil composed for the film.

Although The Birth of a Nation is commonly regarded as a landmark for its dramatic and visual innovations, its use of music was arguably no less revolutionary.[25] Though film was still silent at the time, it was common practice to distribute musical cue sheets, or less commonly, full scores (usually for organ or piano accompaniment) along with each print of a film.[26]

For The Birth of a Nation, composer Joseph Carl Breil created a three-hour-long musical score that combined all three types of music in use at the time: adaptations of existing works by classical composers, new arrangements of well-known melodies, and original composed music.[25] Though it had been specifically composed for the film, Breil's score was not used for the Los Angeles première of the film at Clune's Auditorium; rather, a score compiled by Carli Elinor was performed in its stead, and this score was used exclusively in West Coast showings. Breil's score was not used until the film debuted in New York at the Liberty Theatre, and was the score utilized in all showings save those on the West Coast.[27][28]

Outside of original compositions, Breil adapted classical music for use in the film, including passages from Der Freischütz by Carl Maria von Weber, Leichte Kavallerie by Franz von Suppé, Symphony No. 6 by Ludwig van Beethoven, and Ride of the Valkyries by Richard Wagner, the latter used as a leitmotif during the ride of the KKK.[25] Breil also arranged several traditional and popular tunes that would have been recognizable to audiences at the time, including many Southern melodies; among these songs were "Maryland, My Maryland", "Dixie", "Old Folks at Home", "The Star-Spangled Banner", "America the Beautiful", "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", "Auld Lang Syne", and "Where Did You Get That Hat?".[25][29]

In his original compositions for the film, Breil wrote numerous leitmotifs to accompany the appearance of specific characters. The principal love theme that was created for the romance between Elsie Stoneman and Ben Cameron was published as "The Perfect Song" and is regarded as the first marketed "theme song" from a film; it was later even used as the theme song for the popular radio and television sitcom Amos 'n' Andy.[27][28]

Responses and reception

Poster and advertisement of The Birth of a Nation on the second week of release. It includes preview images from the film.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1909, protested premieres of the film in numerous cities. According to the historian David Copeland, "by the time of the movie's March 3 [1915] premiere in New York City, its subject matter had embroiled the film in charges of racism, protests, and calls for censorship, which began after the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP requested the city's film board ban the movie. Since film boards were composed almost entirely of whites, few review boards initially banned Griffith's picture".[30] The NAACP 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.[31]

Because of the lack of success in NAACP's actions to ban the film, on April 17, 1915, NAACP secretary Mary Childs Nerney wrote to NAACP Executive Committee member George Packard: "I am utterly disgusted with the situation in regard to The Birth of a Nation ... kindly remember that we have put six weeks of constant effort of this thing and have gotten nowhere."[32]

Jane Addams, an American social worker and social reformer, and the founder of Hull House, voiced her reaction to the film in an interview published by the New York Post on March 13, 1915, just ten days after the film was released.[33] She stated that "One of the most unfortunate things about this film is that it appeals to race prejudice upon the basis of conditions of half a century ago, which have nothing to do with the facts we have to consider to-day. Even then it does not tell the whole truth. It is claimed that the play is historical: but history is easy to misuse."[33]

When the film was released, riots broke out in Boston, Philadelphia and other major cities in the United States. The film's inflammatory nature was a catalyst for gangs of whites to attack blacks. On 24 April 1916, the Chicago American reported that a white man murdered a black teenager in Lafayette, Indiana after seeing the film, although there has been some controversy as to whether the murderer had actually seen The Birth of a Nation.[34] The mayor of Cedar Rapids, Iowa was the first of twelve mayors to ban the film in 1915 out of concern that it would promote race prejudice, after meeting with a delegation of black citizens.[35] The NAACP set up a precedent-setting national boycott of the film, likely seen as the most successful effort. Additionally, they organized a mass demonstration when the film was screened in Boston, and it was banned in three states and several cities.[36]

Thomas Dixon, Jr., author of The Birth of a Nation's source play and novel The Clansman, was a former classmate of then-president Woodrow Wilson at Johns Hopkins University. Dixon managed to arrange a screening of The Birth of a Nation at the White House for Wilson, members of his cabinet, and their families, in what was at the time one of the first ever screenings at the White House. Wilson was falsely reported to have said about the film, "It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true".[37] Wilson's aide, Joseph Tumulty, denied the claims and said 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."[38] Historians believe the quote attributed to Wilson originated with Dixon, who was relentless in publicizing the film. After controversy over the film had grown, Wilson wrote that he disapproved of the "unfortunate production."[39]

Griffith, indignant at the film's negative critical reception, wrote letters to newspapers, and published a pamphlet in which he accused his critics of censoring unpopular opinions.[40] When Sherwin Lewis of the New York Globe wrote a piece that expressed criticism of the film's distorted portrayal of history and said that it was not worthy of constitutional protection because its purpose was to make a few "dirty dollars", Griffith responded that "the public should not be afraid to accept the truth, even though it might not like it". He also added that the man who wrote the editorial was "damaging my reputation as a producer" and "a liar and a coward".[41] He conceived his next film, Intolerance (1916), as a response to those who had censored his film.[40]

Despite the film's controversy, The Birth of a Nation was very popular. At over three hours in length (including intermissions), the film was ground-breaking in its production value, budget and ambition. At the time, the film was unlike anything the American audiences had ever seen before.[42]

Box office performance

The box office gross of The Birth of a Nation is not known, and was long subject to exaggeration.[43] At the end of 1917 Epoch reported to its shareholders cumulative receipts of $4.8 million,[44] and Griffith's own records put Epoch's worldwide earnings from the film at $5.2 million as of 1919,[45] although the distributor's share of the revenue at this time was much lower than the exhibition gross. In the biggest cities, Epoch negotiated with individual theater owners for a percentage of the box office; elsewhere the producer sold all rights in a particular state to a single distributor (an arrangement known as "state's rights" distribution).[46] The film historian Richard Schickel says that under the state's rights contracts, Epoch typically received about 10% of the box office gross—which theater owners often underreported—and concludes that "Birth certainly generated more than $60 million in box-office business in its first run".[44] By 1940 Time magazine estimated the film's cumulative gross rental (the distributor's earnings) at approximately $15 million.[47] For years Variety had the gross rental listed as $50 million, but in 1977 repudiated the claim and revised its estimate down to $5 million.[44] It is not known for sure how much the film has earned in total, but producer Harry Aitken put its estimated earnings at $15–18 million in a letter to a prospective investor in a proposed sound version.[45] It is likely the film earned over $20 million for its backers, and generated $50–100 million in box office receipts.[4]

The film played at the Liberty Theater in New York City for 44 weeks and tickets were priced at $2.20 ($51.50 in 2015 dollars).[48]

Sequel and spin-offs

D. W. Griffith made a film in 1916, called Intolerance, partly in response to the criticism that Birth of a Nation received. Griffith has made clear within numerous interviews that the film's title and main themes were chosen in response to those who Griffith felt had been intolerant to his Birth of a Nation.[49]

A sequel called The Fall of a Nation was released in 1916. It was the first sequel in film history.[50] The film was directed by Thomas Dixon, Jr., who adapted it from his own novel of the same name. The film has three acts and a prologue.[51] Despite its success in the foreign market, the film was not a success among the American audiences.[52] It is believed that it is now a lost film.

In 1918, an American silent drama film directed by John W. Noble called The Birth of a Race was released as a direct response to The Birth of a Nation.[53] The film was an ambitious project by producer Emmett Jay Scott to challenge Griffith's film and tell another side of the story, but was ultimately unsuccessful.[54]

In 1919, the director/producer/writer Oscar Micheaux released Within Our Gates, a response from the negro community. Notably, he reversed a key scene of Griffith's film by depicting a white man assaulting a black woman.

The film was remixed in 2004 as Rebirth of a Nation, a live cinema experience by DJ Spooky at Lincoln Center, and has toured at many venues around the world including The Acropolis as a live cinema "remix". The remix version was also presented at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York.[55]

In 2016, Nate Parker produced and directed the film The Birth of a Nation, based on the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner. Parker states: "I've reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change."[56]

Ideology and accuracy

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

The film remains controversial due to its interpretation of American 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.[57] The South is portrayed as a victim. The first overt mentioning of the war is the scene in which Abraham Lincoln signs the call for the first 75,000 volunteers. However, the first aggression in the Civil War, made when the Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in 1861, is not mentioned in the film.[58] The film suggested that the Ku Klux Klan restored order to the postwar 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.[59] The film portrays President Abraham Lincoln as a friend of the Confederacy, and refers to him as "the Great Heart".[60] The two romances depicted in the film, Phil Stoneman with Margaret Cameron and Ben Cameron with Elsie Stoneman, reflect Griffith's retelling of history. The couples are used as a metaphor, representing the film's broader message of the need for the reconciliation of the North and South to defend white supremacy.[61] Among both couples, there is an attraction that forms before the war, stemming from the friendship between their families. With the war, though, both families are split apart, and their losses culminate in the end of the war with the defense of white supremacy. One of the intertitles clearly sums up the message of unity, stating, "The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright." [62]

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 20th 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.[63]

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, D.C. in 1868. However, Stevens' biracial housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith, was considered his common-law wife, and generously provided for in his will.[64]

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."[65]

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 W.E.B. DuBois' work but also adding new sources, they focused on achievements of the negro 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 had used extensive terrorism, intimidation and outright assassinations to suppress negro leaders and voting in the 1870s and to regain power.[66]


Released in 1915, The Birth of a Nation has been credited as groundbreaking among its contemporaries for its innovative application of the medium of film. According to the film historian Kevin Brownlow, the film was "astounding in its time" and initiated "so many advances in film-making technique that it was rendered obsolete within a few years".[67] The content of the work, however, has received widespread criticism for its blatantly racist and fantastical depictions of scenes that are presented onscreen as if in documentary form. Film critic Roger Ebert writes, "Certainly The Birth of a Nation (1915) presents a challenge for modern audiences. Unaccustomed to silent films and uninterested in film history, they find it quaint and not to their taste. Those evolved enough to understand what they are looking at find the early and wartime scenes brilliant, but cringe during the postwar and Reconstruction scenes, which are racist in the ham-handed way of an old minstrel show or a vile comic pamphlet".[68] "Birth of a Nation was the first picture that really made people take the motion picture industry seriously", said Mary Pickford.[69]

The film held the mantle of the highest grossing film until it was overtaken by Gone with the Wind.[70]

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."[68] The website Rotten Tomatoes, which compiles reviews from various sources, indicates the film has a 100% approval rating.[71]

According to a 2002 article in the Los Angeles Times, the film facilitated the refounding of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.[72] As late as the 1970s, the Ku Klux Klan continued to use the film as a recruitment tool.

"The Birth of a Nation" proudly conveyed fallacious ideals that are commonly described as "controversial" and "explicitly racist". In fact, Tim Dirks writes that, "the film is still used today as a recruitment piece for Klan membership".[73] As our first feature-length film, historians note "Birth of a Nation" as one of the most influential artifacts in American history. It was so influential that it was the first movie to be played in the White House.[74] The combination of the movie's seemingly malicious racism and undeniable influence has surely played a role in the perpetuation of many of the race-driven ideologies that constantly undermine attempts at social unification in the United States. The Birth of a Nation paints a gross misrepresentation of the negro as "brutish, lazy, morally degenerate and dangerous".[75] The perpetuation of these race-driven ideologies have been linked to, "general antagonism towards black males", "lack of identification with or sympathy for black males", "public support for punitive solutions to problems" where black men are involved.[76]

American Film Institute recognition

New opening titles on re-release

One famous part of the film was added by Griffith only on the second run of the film[77] and is missing from most online versions of the film (presumably taken from first run prints.)[78]

These are the second and third of three opening title cards which defend the film. The added titles 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.

Various film historians have expressed a range of views about these titles. To Nicholas Andrew Miller, this shows that "Griffith's greatest achievement in The Birth of a Nation was that he brought the cinema's capacity for spectacle... under the rein of an outdated, but comfortably literary form of historical narrative. Griffith's models... are not the pioneers of film spectacle... but the giants of literary narrative".[79] On the other hand, S. Kittrell Rushing complains about Griffith's "didactic" title-cards,[80] while Stanley Corkin complains that Griffith "masks his idea of fact in the rhetoric of high art and free expression" and creates film which "erodes the very ideal" of "liberty" which he asserts.[81]

Home media and restorations

Birth of a Nation, even more than other films in the public domain, has been poorly represented in later releases. The problem, in part, is that Griffith and others have reworked the film, leaving no definitive version. According to the silent film website Brenton Film, "there are a multitude of poor quality DVDs with different edits, scores, running speeds and usually in definitely unoriginal black and white".[82]

There are exceptions. Among them is film preservationist David Shepard's 1992 transfer of a 16mm print for VHS and laserdisc release via Image Entertainment. A short documentary, The Making of The Birth of a Nation, newly produced and narrated by Shepard, was also included. Both were released on DVD by Image in 1998 and the UK's Eureka Entertainment in 2000.[82]

In the UK, Photoplay Productions restored the Museum of Modern Art's 35mm print that was the source of Shepard's 16mm print, though they also augmented it with extra material from the British Film Institute. It was also given a full orchestral recording of the original Breil score. Though broadcast on Channel 4 television and theatrically screened many times, Photoplay's 1993 version was never released on home video.[82]

Shepard's transfer and documentary were reissued in the US by Kino Video in 2002, this time in a 2-DVD set with added extras on the second disc. These included several Civil War shorts also directed by D.W. Griffith.[82]

In 2011 Kino prepared a HD transfer of a 35mm negative from the Paul Killiam Collection. They added some material from the Library of Congress and gave it a new compilation score. This version was released on Blu-ray by Kino in the US, Eureka in the UK (as part of their "Masters of Cinema" collection) and Divisa Home Video in Spain.[82]

In 2015, the year of the film's centenary, Photoplay Productions' Patrick Stanbury, in conjunction with the British Film Institute, carried out the first full restoration. It mostly used new 4K scans of the LoC's original camera negative, along with other early generation material. It too was given the original Breil score and featured the film's original tinting for the first time since its 1915 release. The restoration was released on a 2-Blu-ray set by the BFI, alongside a host of extras, including many other newly restored Civil War related films from the period.[82]

See also


  1. "D. W. Griffith: Hollywood Independent". June 26, 1917. Retrieved July 3, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "THE BIRTH OF A NATION (U)". Western Import Co. Ltd. British Board of Film Classification. Retrieved August 20, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 Hall, Sheldon; Neale, Stephen (2010). Epics, spectacles, and blockbusters: a Hollywood history. Contemporary Approaches to Film and Television. Wayne State University Press. p. 270 (note 2.78). ISBN 9780814336977. In common with most film historians, he estimates that The Birth of Nation cost "just a little more than $100,000" to produce...<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 Monaco, James (2009). How to Read a Film:Movies, Media, and Beyond. Oxford University Press. p. 262. ISBN 9780199755790. The Birth of a Nation, costing an unprecedented and, many believed, thoroughly foolhardy $110,000, eventually returned $20 million and more. The actual figure is hard to calculate because the film was distributed on a "states' rights" basis in which licenses to show the film were sold outright. The actual cash generated by The Birth of a Nation may have been as much as $50 million to $100 million, an almost inconceivable amount for such an early film.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Gallen, Ira H. & Seymour Stern (2014). D.W. Griffith's 100th Anniversary The Birth of a Nation. Victoria, BC, Canada: FriesenPress. p. 1. ISBN 9781460236536.
  6. MJ Movie Reviews – Birth of a Nation, The (1915) by Dan DeVore Archived July 7, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
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  11. Stokes 2007, p. 111. Although in 1914, the Italian film Cabiria had been shown on the White House lawn. Kennedy, Ross A. (2013). A Companion to Woodrow Wilson. John Wiley & Sons. p. 29. ISBN 1118445686.
  12. The Worst Thing About "Birth of a Nation" Is How Good It Is: The New Yorker retrieved 19 May 2014
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  14. ...(the) portrayal of "Austin Stoneman" (bald, clubfoot; mulatta mistress, etc.) made no mistaking that, of course, Stoneman was Thaddeus Stevens..." Robinson, Cedric J.; Forgeries of Memory and Meaning. University of North Carolina, 2007; p. 99.
  15. Garsman, Ian; "The Tragic Era Exposed." Website: Reel American History; Lehigh University Digital Library, 2011-2012; Accessed 23 Jan. 2013.
  16. 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.
  17. Leistedt, Samuel J.; Linkowski, Paul (January 2014). "Psychopathy and the Cinema: Fact or Fiction?". Journal of Forensic Sciences. American Academy of Forensic Sciences. 59 (1): 167–174. doi:10.1111/1556-4029.12359. PMID 24329037. Retrieved January 17, 2014.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  30. Copeland, David (2010). The Media's Role in Defining the Nation: The Active Voice. Peter Lang Publisher. p. 168.
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  34. Gallen, Ira H. & Stern Seymour. D.W. Griffith's 100th Anniversary The Birth of a Nation (2014) p.47f.
  35. Gaines, Jane M. (2001). Fire and Desire: Mixed-Race Movies in the Silent Era. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 334.
  36. Christensen, Terry (1987). Reel Politics, American Political Movies from Birth of a Nation to Platoon. New York: Basil Blackwell Inc. p. 19. ISBN 0-631-15844-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  37. McEwan, Paul (2015). The Birth of a Nation. London: Palgrave. pp. 80–81. ISBN 978-1-84457-657-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  38. 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.
  39. Woodrow Wilson to Joseph P. Tumulty, April 28, 1915 in Wilson, Papers, 33:86.
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  45. 45.0 45.1 Wasko, Janet (1986). "D.W. Griffiths and the banks: a case study in film financing". In Kerr, Paul (ed.). The Hollywood Film Industry: A Reader. Routledge. p. 34. ISBN 9780710097309. Various accounts have cited $15 to $18 million profits during the first few years of release, while in a letter to a potential investor in the proposed sound version, Aitken noted that a $15 to $18 million box-office gross was a 'conservative estimate'. For years Variety has listed The Birth of a Nation's total rental at $50 million. (This reflects the total amount paid to the distributor, not box-office gross.) This 'trade legend' has finally been acknowledged by Variety as a 'whopper myth', and the amount has been revised to $5 million. That figure seems far more feasible, as reports of earnings in the Griffith collection list gross receipts for 1915–1919 at slightly more than $5.2 million (including foreign distribution) and total earnings after deducting general office expenses, but not royalties, at about $2 million.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  78. This includes the one at the Internet Movie Archive [1] and the Google video copy [2] and Veoh Watch Videos Online | The Birth of a Nation | However, of multiple YouTube copies one which has the full opening titles is DW GRIFFITH THE BIRTH OF A NATION PART 1 1915 on YouTube
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  • Addams, Jane, in Crisis: A Record of Darker Races, X (May 1915), 19, 41, and (June 1915), 88.
  • Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films (1973).
  • 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. "Silent Cinema as Historical Mythmaker". In Myth America: A Historical Anthology, Volume II. 1997. Gerster, Patrick, and Cords, Nicholas. (editors.) Brandywine Press, St. James, NY. ISBN 978-1-881089-97-1
  • 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.
  • Hickman, Roger. Reel Music: Exploring 100 Years of Film Music (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006).
  • Hodapp, Christopher L., and Alice Von Kannon, Conspiracy Theories & Secret Societies For Dummies (Hoboken: Wiley, 2008) p. 235–6.
  • 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.
  • 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
  • Poole, W. Scott, Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting (Waco, Texas: Baylor, 2011), 30. ISBN 978-1-60258-314-6
  • Simkins, Francis B., "New Viewpoints of Southern Reconstruction", Journal of Southern History, V (February, 1939), pp. 49–61.
  • Stokes, Melvyn (2007), 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, ISBN 0198044364<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>. 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