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"Classic or not, Birth of a Nation has long been one of the embarrassments of film scholarship. It can't be ignored ... and yet it was regarded as outrageously racist even at a time when racism was hardly a household word."—Andrew Sarris
"Despite Birth's blatant glorification of the KKK and depiction of black Americans as wild animals, this movie still ... nope, we're not finishing that sentence. On one hand, it pioneered concepts like actually moving the cameras and using rapid cuts, and you're probably still seeing its influence in movies today. On the other hand, everything else about it."
A 1915 silent movie directed by D.W. Griffith, starring famous silent film actress Lillian Gish, and one of Hollywood's first great "epic" films.
The plot of The Birth of a Nation is a two-part chronicle of American history. The first part depicts the nation before, during, and after The American Civil War, from the perspective of two juxtaposed families - the Northern Stonemans, who are abolitionists and federalists, and the Southern Camerons, who are secessionists. When war breaks out, the houses must send their sons off to their respective opposing armies. The Camerons suffer many hardships in the war torn and depleted South, and must deal with hunger, ransackers, looters, and rapists. Eventually, the Union army crushes the Confederacy, ending the war. President Abraham Lincoln promises to rebuild the South, in spite of protests from vengeful Northern politicians who would execute its leaders and treat the land as conquered territory. But Abraham Lincoln is assassinated at Ford's Theater, allowing the Radical Republicans, led by Austin Stoneman, to gain strength and support for inflicting punitive measures on the South for their rebellion.
The second part depicts the Reconstruction era. With the war over and slavery abolished, new issues arrive that America must resolve. The South must be rebuilt and re-integrated as part of the nation, without its dependency on slavery. The freed slaves must find their place in the new society, and their rights and legal status must be determined. Violent controversy erupts in the South over how to tackle these issues. Stoneman and the Radical Republicans go to South Carolina to try to influence the votes of Southern blacks. The Ku Klux Klan is formed in response, who hunt down and lynch a murderous former slave, rescue the Cameron family from an attack by a negro militia, and effectively disenfranchise the black voters. The people depicted throughout the film as the "true enemy," though, are mulattoes -- those of mixed white and negro ancestry, who will stop at nothing to bring the white man down.
Being one of the first feature films ever, The Birth of a Nation introduced, refined, and popularized zillions of tropes, and is considered one of the most groundbreaking films ever. But it is also extremely controversial - its view of Reconstruction is one that promotes white supremacy and that glorifies the KKK. Not surprisingly, one of President Woodrow Wilson's favorite films (Wilson segregated the Navy and introduced Jim Crow laws to Washington, DC). Even he had to distance himself from his praise of the film eventually, though.
This film is in the public domain and can be viewed in its entirety at Youtube.
Some tropes include:
- Adaptation Distillation:
- All Is Well That Ends Well: Though whether it ends well or not depends a lot on your perspective
- Beauty Equals Goodness: Especially prevalent in the novel. All the heroes are beautiful, all the villains (except for Lydia Brown) are hideous.
- Better to Die Than Be Killed: Flora Cameron jumps off a cliff rather than be raped --sort of, see below-- by a freed slave
- Big Damn Heroes
- Bindle Stick: Justified. Carpetbaggers really did carry these.
- Black and White Morality: Literally. In the Reconstruction chapter, the villains are vengeful, scheming, manipulative, corrupt politicians who use freed slaves and militia to terrorize the former Southern aristocracy. The heroes, the KKK are Knights in Shining Armour. People don't consider this film racist for nothing.
- Blackface: Unsurprisingly, there were few black actors who played the black roles in this film. The rest were filled in by white actors wearing glaringly obvious makeup. (Even in its racist heyday, blackface makeup was supposed to create a clownish caricature that no one would believe was a real black person; Griffith must not have thought much of his audience's powers of perception.)
- In truth, the would-be rapist comes across less as a truly black man than as an unwashed (white) coal miner.
- Bound and Gagged: A white woman, of course.
- Bowdlerise: In the original novel, Gus succeeds in raping Marion Lenoir, Ben's childhood sweetheart.
- Capulet Counterpart: Elsie and Phil Stoneman.
- Category Traitor: The radical republicans are implied to have betrayed the white race, especially with Stoneman himself having an extramarital affair with a black woman - leading him to give power to the evil mulatto who later try to rape his daughter.
- The Cavalry: Every single shot of cavalry riding to the rescue in every western, ever, is merely a copy of one of the zillion shots of the Klan riding to the rescue in this film.
- Changed My Mind, Kid
- Closeup on Head
- Continuity Editing: D.W. Griffith practically defined continuity editing with movies like this.
- Dead Little Sister: Flora for Ben.
- Defiled Forever
- Did Not Do the Research: Griffith later claimed that he hadn't realized that the books he used as the basis for the story were racist whitewashings of history. Whether this is true or not, his next film, the anti-racist epic Intolerance, is widely accepted to have been made as Griffith's attempt at an apology.
- Distressed Damsel: Flora Cameron and later, Elsie Stoneman. In the book, Marion Lenoir and her mother, Jeanine.
- Divided States of America
- Epic Movie: Probably the first ever.
- Evil Cripple: Austin Stoneman.
- Fair for Its Day: Invoked in the intro to the second part, but fails into aversion. Even during the "Nadir of American race relations" it was considered racist.
- Fictional Counterpart: Austin Stoneman is a stand-in for Thaddeus Stevens, a Radical Republican leader.
- Framed Subject
- Genre Busting
- Golden Mean Fallacy: This movie tries so desperately to be neutral that it become monstrous. Siding neither with slavery nor with the "extremists" who want actual race equality, it supports the "neutral middle ground" of Jim Crow laws. The filmmakers seem to have thought that making Lincoln a sympathetic character and including a ass-kicking black heroine weighs up making the Ku Klux Klan heroes of the story.
- Grievous Harm with a Body: One of the Ku-Kluxers clobbers several black guys with one of their friends. The way the man being swung as a club flops about indicates that Senator Stoneman isn't the only straw man in this film.
- Hair of Gold: Phil and Elsie in the book.
- Hollywood Night
- An Insert: Pretty much required in silent movies with sophisticated plots.
- In the Hood: The KKK wear white hoods partly to disguise their identities.
- In-Universe Camera
- Light Is Not Good: Inverted; the KKK are the heroes in the film's climax, though they still come across to modern viewers as pretty rotten.
- Love At First Sight: For both of our couples.
- Male Gaze: A Union hospital guard takes a long look at Gish after she passes by him to visit her convalescing boyfriend.
- Melodrama: Especially in the second half.
- Never Mess with Granny: In The Birth of a Nation, we have an overweight elderly housekeeper leap into action and save her employer, knocking down at least one ruffian and two soldiers in the process. Interesting for a white supremacist racist work, the heroine is black and the man she's saving is white.
- Ojou: Elsie and the Cameron sisters, at least at first.
- Poirot Speak: "Dem free-niggers f'um de N'of um so' crazy".
- Police Are Useless: Justified in that the Radical Republicans, more or less, own the police.
- The Pollyanna: Flora Cameron, during the Civil War half.
- Rape as Drama
- "Ride of the Valkyries": Used when the Klansmen ride to the rescue at the climax.
- Scary Black Man: Gus.
- And an even scarier biracial, Silas Lynch.
- Southern Belle: Mrs. Cameron and her daughters, Margaret and Flora.
- The Vamp: Lydia Brown.
- Where Da White Women At?: Sort of. Both Silas Lynch and Gus want White women but the women don't exactly return their feelings.
- White Man's Burden: Played to some extent really horribly, with Austin Stoneman's mulatto protégé Silas.
- Written by the Winners: It certainly wasn't the most objective view of the Reconstruction Period.