A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation is a landmark in cinema history, yet it contains some of the most disturbingly racist images ever filmed. Since the moment of its opening, the movie has been continuously protested and defended. It depicts the Civil War, and as such contains some battle scenes, though nothing overtly gory or bloody. We see the shooting of Abraham Lincoln. A black slave tries to attack a white woman, and she runs, leading to her accidental death. It also depicts drinking and drunkenness, mostly by the African-American characters. It's unlikely that today's teens will be as powerfully influenced by this film as audiences were nearly 100 years ago, but strong caution -- and post-movie discussions -- are advised.
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What's the story?
When the American Civil War strikes, two families find themselves on opposite sides. The Stonemans -- including the good-hearted Elsie (Lillian Gish) -- believe in the Union, while the Camerons choose the ideals of the South. After the war, the new Southern legislature controlled by blacks and carpetbaggers -- who drink and kick off their shoes while in session -- creates anarchy. So Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) is inspired to organize the Ku Klux Klan, a vigilante group that keeps the identities of its members protected under white hoods. When a renegade slave, Gus (Walter Long), attacks and chases Ben's younger sister Flora (Mae Marsh), she plunges to her death, spurring cries of Klan revenge. Will the South ever be the same again?
Is it any good?
D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation is an extremely heavy, perhaps immovable, monument in cinema. It's as much a part of film history as the Civil War is a part of American history, but it presents a problem: It's important, and the effects of it were huge, but how can we claim it as a great movie when it is also so deeply racist? Could Griffith have been aware of the movie's racist message, or was he simply a naïve messenger, passing along stories of America's racist history?
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the movie's racism. Is this movie a great work of art, or an offensive work of hatred? Can it be both at the same time?
- What is the movie's most violent sequence? Is it the battle footage, or something involving individual characters? Why is this?
What would be another way to tell this story of American history? What other viewpoints are there?
For kids who love history
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