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Birth of a Nation

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Birth of a Nation

Media has always been important as a tool of propaganda. At the beginning of the 20th century, Birth of a Nation marked the first time film had been used to successfully express and influence social and political ideas in the United States. The film married racist views to revolutionary art in a way that mesmerized some white audiences while galvanizing support for a new Ku Klux Klan. How did this new form of propaganda come to influence society?

A black and White Photograph of Tomas Dixon Jr. StudySmarter

Thomas Dixon Jr./Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Dixon Jr.'s The Clansman

Birth of a Nation is an adaptation of the novel The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr. The book, set during the Reconstruction, told a story about a heroic Ku Klux Klan Southern Whites from Northern politicians who wanted to disenfranchise them and violence committed by formerly enslaved African Americans. Reviewers and editors railed against its historical inaccuracies throughout the North and attempted to breathe new life into racial divisions. Many felt that the wounds of the Reconstruction had finally healed, and this new work was seeking to reopen them.

Thomas Dixon Jr.

Dixon was a lawyer and a preacher born in North Carolina a year before the end of the Civil War. In his hands, mass media, such as novels and plays, were tools to spread his religious beliefs. The most famous of these was his Klan Trilogy: Leopard's Spots, The Clansman, and The Traitor (released from 1902 to 1907. His most particular interest was in the White Southern woman as a symbol of purity and idyllic home life. He strongly opposed anything that he viewed as a threat to that, such as racial equality, which may lead to interracial marriage, women's suffrage, or women having any life outside of their home. He presented a vision of pure Southern life to audiences with his novels. He then tried to scare audiences into accepting his political views by introducing scenes of violence, degeneration, and evil, which he imagined might result from taking opposing social and political pictures.

The Clansman Play

Many early films were adaptions of plays and even used actors that had successfully played the role on stage. Dixon himself wrote and produced a play version of The Clansman, which brought the work to an even larger audience. The play proved highly divisive and controversial. While Southern audiences made the play a financial success, it was banned or protested in Northern–and some Southern–for its message of racial hatred.

Newspaper reports began to appear in cities where the play had been staged of lynchings tied to the play being committed. It was only the beginning of the racial violence that the work would inspire.

It is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil."

–Roger Ebert1

Birth of a Nation, A black and white photograph of D W Griffith StudySmarter

D. W. Griffith/Wikimedia Commons

Birth of a Nation D. W Griffith

Discussing the film work of D. W. Griffith has been a challenge to film critics and historians since the mid-twentieth century. Understanding his film's medium-defining artistic and technological triumphs is essential in understanding the effectiveness of propaganda. Propaganda does not succeed in its goal of influencing society by being crudely constructed but by bringing artistic and technical skills to spread ideas that may even be harmful, as film critic Roger Ebert noted.

Artistic and Technical Advances of Birth of a Nation

Birth of a Nation gave audiences a film like they had never seen before and ushered in the Golden Age of Hollywood. The film was more complex than before, with over 1,500 shots compared to previous films, which barely had over 100. Previous films had shot scenes from a single angle, as though an audience was watching a play. Griffith innovated by shooting the same scene from many angles and splicing them together for dramatic effect. At three hours long, the film presented the most complex and literary narrative ever been shot. The audience was delighted.

Previous narrative films had taken most of their narrative techniques from plays, where Griffith looked to literature as an influence.

Title Screen to the film Birth of a Nation 1915 StudySmarter

Birth of a Nation Title Screen/Wikimedia Commons

Birth of a Nation Summary

The first half of Birth of a Nation tells the story of a friendship between the Northern abolitionist Stoneman family and the Southern plantation-owning Cameron family. As the Civil War erupts, the families' young sons meet again on the battlefield with tragic consequences, as they realize with remorse that it is against their beloved friends they are fighting. The film portrays President Lincoln as a friend of the South, whose assassination doomed the South to suffer the revenge of Radical Republicans during Reconstruction. When the Cameron son returns after the Civil War, he finds a new order in the South as Black Union soldiers led by White officers disenfranchise White Southerners under orders from Senator Stoneman's agent, the mixed-race Silas Lynch. After the Stonemans come to again visit the Camerons, the situation spirals out of control with gangs of violent Black Americans terrorizing White Southerners, who must be saved by the Cameron's Ku Klux Klan, causing the Stonemans to realize the error of their views on racial equality.

Birth of a Nation KKK

The sympathetic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan in Birth of a Nation can be traced back to Dixon and Griffith's upbringings. Dixon's father and uncle were both members of the original organization. Some of Dixon's earliest memories would be witnessing a Klan parade and a woman coming to his family with accusations that a Black man had accosted her daughter. Griffith had less of a direct connection to the organization, but his father had served in the Confederate army and was known for his many war tales. The influence of the Civil War and Reconstruction touched both men directly.

Extras and use of Black Face

The film featured epic battle scenes involving the use of extras on a scale that had never been done before. The result was a new and impressive spectacle to wow audiences. Despite the number of black characters in the film, Black actors were only used as extras. The central Black characters were all portrayed by White actors in blackface.

The film does manage to praise some Black Americans who conform to what the film considers to be their proper place in society. When former enslaved African Americans protect their Ku Klux Klan-affiliated former enslaver and criticize other Black Americans who consider themselves equal to White Americans, the film describes them as "faithful."

Birth of a Nation: A History

From the moment of its release, the film was extremely controversial. Its February 1915 premiere was protested, yet it made an unheard-of amount of money, was seen by three million people and left Griffith and Dixon extremely wealthy. The NAACP led protests against the film, some of which turned into violent clashes. Arguments about the film erupted in newspapers, with editors and letter writers coming out on both sides. Despite the opposition to the film, it had mass popularity in mainstream America.

Kansas and Ohio were the only states to ban the film. By the 1930s, perception of the film had changed so that most theater owners did not want to show it for fear of large-scale protests.

A scene from the film Birth of a Nation 1915 featuring the KKK StudySmarter

Ku Klux Klan Attacks a Black Man in Birth of a Nation/Wikimedia Commons

Birth of a Nation Significance

The most significant social effect of Birth of a Nation was in bringing the on-screen violence and hatred back to life. The image of the Ku Klux Klan had been revitalized by Americans who turned the hooded figures into merchandise and a theme for parties. Shortly after the film was released, the Ku Klux Klan reorganized in 1915, sending out recruiters to gain membership off of the film's popularity. Besides Black Americans, a large wave of immigration in the early twentieth century was another target of the hated, intimidation, and lynching that this new Klan participated in.

Birth of a Nation - Key takeaways

  • Based upon the novel and play The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr.
  • D W Griffith directed The Birth of a Nation Film.
  • The technical and artistic elements of the film were revolutionary for the time.
  • The story was racist propaganda in favor of the Ku Klux Klan.
  • The film was extremely popular but controversial.
  • The film aided in the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.

1Roger Ebert. The Birth of a Nation [Review]. 2003.

Frequently Asked Questions about Birth of a Nation

Birth of a Nation is based on the novel and play The Clansman.

The theme of Birth of a Nation is that the racial equality is bad for society.  

D. W. Griffith was significant for innovating how films were made. He laid the blueprint for major Hollywood movies. 

D. W. Griffith was a film director who innovated how films were made and laid the blueprint for major Hollywood movies.

Birth of a Nation was important for innovating film and for enlivening the Ku Klux Klan ideology. 

Final Birth of a Nation Quiz


Who did Birth of a Nation present as heroic?

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The Ku Klux Klan

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What novel was Birth of a Nation based on?

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The Clansman

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Who Directed Birth of a Nation?

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D. W. Griffith

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Who wrote The Clansman?

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Thomas Dixon Jr.

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What effect did Birth of a Nation have on the KKK?

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The organization was able to reform and attract many new members.

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How did Birth of a Nation influence film?

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The film featured many innovations such as the use of extras for epic scenes and musing multiple angles in a single scene. 

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How did audiences react to Birth of a Nation?

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The movie was extremely popular but did receive protests and bans.

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What was the main reason Thomas Dixon Jr. wrote his novels?

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To spread his social and political ideas.

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Who led protests against Birth of a Nation?

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Who played the Black characters in the film?

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Black characters in the film were played by White actors in blackface but some Black extras appeared in the background of scenes.

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