The Birth of a Nation (originally called The Clansman) is a 1915 American silent drama film directed by D. W. Griffith and based on the novel and play The Clansman, both by Thomas Dixon, Jr. Griffith co-wrote the screenplay (with Frank E. Woods), and co-produced the film (with Harry Aitken). It was released on February 8, 1915. The film was originally presented in two parts, separated by an intermission.
The film chronicles the relationship of two families in Civil War and Reconstruction-era America: the pro-Union Northern Stonemans and the pro-Confederacy Southern Camerons over the course of several years. The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth is dramatized.
The film was a commercial success, but was highly controversial owing to its portrayal of African-American men (played by white actors in blackface) as unintelligent and sexually aggressive towards white women, and the portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan (whose original founding is dramatized) as a heroic force. There were widespread African-American protests against The Birth of a Nation, such as in Boston, while thousands of white Bostonians flocked to see the film. The NAACP spearheaded an unsuccessful campaign to ban the film. The outcry of racism was so great that Griffith was inspired to produce Intolerance the following year.
The film is also credited as one of the events that inspired the formation of the “second era” Ku Klux Klan at Stone Mountain, Georgia, in the same year. The Birth of a Nation was used as a recruiting tool for the KKK. Under Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, it was the first motion picture to be shown at the White House.
Despite the film’s controversial content, Griffith’s innovative film techniques make it one of the most important and controversial films in the commercial and film industry. In 1998, it was voted one of the “Top 100 American Films” (#44) by the American Film Institute.
Box office $50,000,000
Hooded Klansmen catch Gus, a black man described in the film as “a renegade, a product of the vicious doctrines spread by the carpetbaggers.” Gus was portrayed in blackface by white actor Walter Long.