Just How Bad Is D.W. Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation?

birth of a nation
I believe this scene was recycled in Forrest Gump

There are two movies with the title The Birth Of A Nation. Nate Parker’s film opens in theatres today, but the other one is 101 years old. For years, it has been the subject of controversy over its plot and themes. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film has several themes which are political incorrect. Modern audiences will question its content rather than praise its artistic value. Yet one must remember the historical context in the movie.

The Birth of a Nation focuses on the Northern pro-abolition Stonemans and the pro-Confederacy Cameron family. Both families lose sons during the Civil War. Surviving son Ben Cameron fights, gets shot and nearly hanged by the Union. Luckily, he receives a pardon from Abraham Lincoln. After Lincoln’s assassination, the South plunges into chaos and disillusionment. As the film notes, “The blight of war does not end when hostilities cease.”

birth of a nation
Yep, that’s pretty racist

The Reconstruction has African-Americans gaining voting rights. Black representatives behave vulgarly at the legislature, passing integration and interracial laws. Distraught, Ben decides to fight back and avenge the South. He founds the Ku Klux Klan. This leads to a tense climax in which the Stonemans and Camerons make a stand against their enemies.

Griffith’s movie features groundbreaking effects such as color tinting and long camera shots. It uses cross-cutting editing and night photography. Many of these features would soon become staples of filmmaking.

Despite the film’s technical skills, it is known for its racist themes. The plot depicts blacks being crude and vulgar. One such character, Gus the Renegade, lusts and chases after a white woman. White actors play blacks by using blackface makeup. More disturbingly, the movie depicts the Klan as a noble force trying to achieve social justice for whites. Not very PC, is it?


According to the late Roger Ebert, one needs to grasp context to understand the movie. “The film represents how racist a white American could be in 1915 without realizing he was racist at all,” he writes. “That it is a mirror of its time is, sadly, one of its values.” Talk about words of wisdom.

Recently, The Birth of a Nation has been losing its prestige of being one of cinema’s greatest epics. It is no longer on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 list. However, it remains in the National Film Registry as “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

Viewers should remember the context in which The Birth of a Nation got made. Yes, the film does present a wholly inaccurate, racially-insensitive portrayal of American society. However, those views still exist today.

The Birth Of A Nation is by no means one of the best movies of all time. But we can use it to learn about our past. Instead of censoring history, one ought to look at how the themes of race and prejudice resonate in today’s society. Look at the fates of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin. To deny what has come before is be a grave mistake.

Jonathan Bruce
Jonathan Bruce
I am an English teacher by day and a freelance writer at night. Specialities include news, reviews, opinion and commentary articles. When I'm not teaching, I participate in theatre, building sets and working stage crew as a hobby. I also enjoy reading and having an occasional glass of Scotch.