This is a film pretty much everyone interested in film history has heard of even if they’ve never seen it all the way through. What most of us know is that it was supposed to have been tremendously important and innovative in its technique and approach to story-telling, but also painfully racist. Unfortunately, that's a fair description.
The first part of The Birth of a Nation, covering the run-up to the Civil War and the war itself, is not notably more racist than, say, typical films of the 1940s, and I was prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt. But once Lincoln has been killed and Reconstruction begins, the story goes rapidly downhill, hits bottom, and starts digging with furious abandon.
In fact, after Lincoln's murder the film's racism is so blatant and palpable and offensive -- at one point unintentionally pointing out a common thread tying American racism to Naziism -- that it could almost serve today as an anti-racist film.
The story has to do with two fictitious families, the northern Stonemans and the southern Camerons.
The head of the Stoneman family is a Radical Republican Congressman. His adult sons are friends with the Cameron brothers and pay then a visit in Charleston. One of the Stoneman brothers presents a miniature photograph of his sister Elsie (Lilian Gish) to young Ben Cameron, and he’s so taken with her beauty that he’s immediately smitten and thereafter always carries the photo about with him.
Ben Cameron is a young man, but when the Civil War begins he quickly becomes a colonel in the Confederate Army, acquiring the nickname “the Little Colonel.” His bravery makes him a war hero, respected even by northern soldiers who see him give water to a dying Union soldier at risk to his own life.
But when he’s later wounded and captured in battle he’s sentenced to be executed for treason -- just as soon as he’s well enough.
(Illness as a reason to postpone capital punishment might seem rather illogical, but nursing someone back to health in preparation for death them is traditional in Western culture. Tom Paine escaped the French guillotine during the Terror in part because he was too ill to be beheaded, and by the time he’d got all better, a new faction was running things, and just like in Hollywood, a new team in charge meant all previous deals were off.)
The elderly Mrs. Cameron, Ben's mother, makes her way north to visit her POW son in a large makeshift military hospital in Washington. At the entry to the ward sentry tries to bar her entry, but she tells him, “I am going into that room to my boy. You may shoot if you want to.”
She finds Ben in the care of a volunteer nurse, none other than Lilian Gish, the very girl whose photo he’s been carrying about since before the war. He’s already told her of their family connections and the two of them have a budding romance going. When the two women learn that the little colonel is destined to die for treason, Elsie suggests to Mrs. Cameron, “We will ask mercy from the Great Heart.”
In a brief, understated scene that is one of the best two in the film, the women visit President Lincoln, who seems to spend his days seeing a constant stream of people. When Mrs. Cameron pleads for her son’s life, Lincoln is moved and grants a pardon. As he turns back to his desk after handing her the document the tearful mother starts to embrace him but thinks better of it.
Back at the hospital she tells her son the good news: “Mr. Lincoln has given back your life to me.” Then she must leave to return home, where her husband is ailing.
After wishing Mrs. Cameron farewell at the entrance to the ward, Elsie stands there thoughtfully a moment, oblivious to a sentry leaning on his rifle a few feet away and regarding her with a quiet smile of wistful longing that every man in the audience could sympathize with. She happens to glance over and sees how he’s looking at her, and then she nervously takes a step farther away.
This short, very funny and understated bit became so famous that Griffith reportedly tried to find the name of the bit player (I wouldn’t call him an actor, because I guarantee you the honest expression of longing on his face wasn’t acting) and was unable to do so. However, Lilian Gish herself later ran into him years later and in her autobiography identifies him as William Freeman.
The memorable scene showing the murder of President Lincoln in Ford’s theater was recreated with much attention to historical detail. John Wilkes Booth was portrayed (uncredited) by Raoul Walsh, later a successful director.
Bad things follow Lincoln’s death both in history and in the film. It’s striking how many things presumably intended to evoke the audience’s sympathy and approval in fact make Southern culture look ridiculous, barbaric, and awful. For one small example, when Congressman Stoneman’s mixed-race protégé courteously extends his hand to Ben Cameron -- who is supposed to be the film’s hero -- Cameron angrily and contemptuously crosses his arms. That’s very possibly what would have happened in reality, but it doesn’t prevent the Little Colonel from looking like a Big Ass.
If set out to make a film parodying what a racist movie would look like, you
But it gets worse. The people who really come across as idiots are the Southern aristocracy, with their culture deliberately imitative of the Middle Ages, a romanticized barbarity focused on exaggerated notions of shame and "honor." So the film depicts with apparent approval a Southern belle who preserves her honor by leaping to her death rather than allow herself to be touched by a black man. Later, at a climactic moment, some white “gentlemen” prepare to bash in the skulls of their daughters and sisters rather than risk having their honor besmirched by falling alive into the hands of black soldiers.
(In fact, it appears that black characters, male and female, who actually come into contact with white women are played by white actors in makeup, so even during filming the white actresses were "protected" from any interracial contact.)
Perhaps most disturbing of all to modern audiences, when two former Union soldiers hide the Cameron family in their cottage, an intertitle informs us that despite having fought on opposite sides in the war, they are all united now by their “Aryan birthright."
To be fair, the tense climax, cutting back between two scenes of danger, is stirring, or would be were the good guys riding to the rescue not the Ku Klux Klan, the founding of which the film attributes to the fictitious Little Colonel. (The novel on which the film was based was titled The Clansman.) The best thing I can say for the depiction of the Klan in the film is that a lot of these sheetheads wear helmets apparently modeled, appropriately enough, on toilet plungers.
While we might suppose, given the shameful level of racism that permeated our society a century ago -- worse in the South but only marginally better elsewhere -- that the film would have provoked not much objection when it was initially released. But in fact, even then it was widely condemned. A few cities, such as Chicago, even attempted to ban it. (Incidentally, it’s worth recalling that the Civil War had ended only 50 years before, so the events of the film were as recent for the initial audiences as the 1960s are for us.)
There's a story that when the film was shown to President Wilson in the White House (reportedly the first movie to to be exhibited there), Wilson called it “history writ by the lightning” or words to that effect. But while Wilson was himself a racist in modern terms (the film approvingly quotes an excerpt from a distorted description of Reconstruction in one of his books), there's evidence the line was actually concocted by the author of the novel for promotional purposes, and indeed other sources report that Wilson judged the film “unfortunate.”
Griffith was reportedly so upset by the reaction that he made his next major effort, Intolerance, in an effort to redeem his reputation.
The film is out of copyright and available various places on line.