What is Birth of a Nation?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Birth of a Nation is a highly controversial American film which debuted in 1915. Even at the time the film met with significant criticism due to its racist content, and it continues to be a topic of debate among critics of American film. Some critics argue that the film itself was excellent, although the content left a great deal to be desired, while others point out that it is difficult to separate the film from its message. People who want to see Birth of a Nation to judge it for themselves can probably find it in a local video store; several archival organizations also host the film online.

The first part of "Birth of a Nation" takes place during the American Civil War.
The first part of "Birth of a Nation" takes place during the American Civil War.

The alternate title for this film is The Clansman, reflecting the Thomas Dixon novel which inspired it. At the time that the film was released, many members of the African American community spoke out loudly against it, holding rallies and demonstrations. Many prominent African Americans also pointed out that much of the material in Birth of a Nation was not only offensive, but false, and they urged communities like Los Angeles to ban the film. In fact, the controversy over this film may have even helped to organize and solidify the nascent civil rights movement.

The film is broken into two parts, one of which takes place during the American Civil War, and the other of which occurs during Reconstruction. It follows the fates of two families, one Abolitionist family based in the North, and another family which represents the Old South. The film sends a clear message that blacks and whites are not equals, and that Reconstruction was largely a failure. The film also promotes white supremacy, and suggests that the Klu Klux Klan, a notoriously racist organization, actually helped to stabilize the South after the war.

Birth of a Nation was quite groundbreaking for its time, in film terms. It was the first film over 100 minutes in length, paving the way for the success of future feature films. It was also the highest grossing film of all time until 1937, when it was unseated by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Although the film was silent, it had a complex musical score which included individual themes for specific characters.

Many people think that Birth of a Nation is culturally significant, and that it should be included in any reasonable survey of American filmmaking. Others argue that the film is simply a piece of blatant propaganda with no cultural value. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle; Birth of a Nation is an interesting film to watch because it illustrates widely held cultural beliefs which persisted in the United States well into the 20th century.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@medicchristy: The original KKK was organized by ex-confederate’s who opposed the Reconstruction efforts after the Civil War. They were organized at a time when local government in the South was weak.

William J. Simmons founded the second KKK in 1915. Simmons was an ex-minister and promoter of fraternal order. Simmons held his first meeting on Stone Mountain in GA. The new Klan was for white supremacy and was anti-Catholic.

KKK stands for Ku Klux Klan.


What exactly is the KKK?

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