The Birth of a Nation (also known as The Clansman), a silent film directed by D. W. Griffith and released in , is one of the most influential and controversial of American motion pictures. 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 is noted for its innovative technical and narrative achievements, and its status as the first Hollywood "blockbuster." It has provoked great controversy for its treatment of white supremacy and sympathetic account of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
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, attempting to rape all the Cameron women, who 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 typical of this period of the Reconstruction era.
Part 2 depicts Reconstruction. Stoneman and his mulatto protegé, Silas Lynch, go to South Carolina to observe their agenda of empowering Southern blacks via election fraud. Meanwhile, Ben, inspired by observing white children pretending to be ghosts to scare off black children, devises a plan to reverse perceived powerlessness of Southern whites by forming the Ku Klux Klan, although his membership in the group angers Elsie.
Then Gus, a murderous former slave with designs on white women, crudely proposes to marry Flora. She flees into the forest, pursued by Gus. Trapped on a precipice, Flora leaps to her death to avoid letting herself be raped. In response, the Klan hunts Gus, lynches 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 "crazed 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, and 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 themselves at 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."
The film was based on Thomas Dixon's novels The Clansman and The Leopard's Spots. Griffith, whose father had 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 (the equivalent of $2.2 million in 2007). 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 $40 in 2007). It remained the most profitable film of all time until it was dethroned by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937.
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 after the United States emerged out of the American Civil War and Reconstruction, ostensibly ended by the Klan, as a unified nation.
When the film was shown, riots broke out in Boston, Philadelphia and other major cities. Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and St. Louis refused to allow the film to open. The film's inflammatory character was a catalyst for gangs of whites to attack blacks. In Lafayette, Indiana, after seeing the movie, a white man killed a black teenager.
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.
Relentless in publicizing the film, Dixon himself was apparently the source for the quotation, which 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. DW Griffith would also respond 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. The film portrayed a positive image of blacks. Although the film was panned by white critics, it was well-received by black critics and moviegoers attending segregated theaters. 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.
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. 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.
This version was vigorously disputed by W.E.B. Du Bois and other black historians upon its release, and most historians of all backgrounds today, who point out 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. However, today this argument is largely seen as a product of Anglo-American racism of the early twentieth century, by which many Americans held that black Americans were unequal as citizens.
The civil rights movement and other social movements created a new generation of historians, such as 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 all 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.
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).
The website Rotten Tomatoes, which compiles reviews from various sources, indicates the film has a 100% "fresh" (positive) rating.
In 1992 the United States Library of Congress deemed the film "culturally 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.
According to a 2002 article in the Los Angeles Times, the film facilitated the refounding of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. As late as the 1970s, the Ku Klux Klan continued to use the film as a recruitment tool.
Also in Forrest Gump, a scene is depicted with Forrest's great grandfather as the lead clansman.