The Birth of a Nation
By Jeffrey Anderson,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Landmark American classic is as troubling as it is great.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this movie.
Evidence of teamwork and rising to meet challenges is in this movie, but the reasons are based on hatred, bigotry, and revenge.
Positive Role Models
Unless you count Abraham Lincoln, who has a supporting role, the movie's focus is not on anyone who could be considered a role model. Female characters are good, decent folks, but characters who drive the story forward do so based on intolerance and revenge.
Glorifies White supremacy and Ku Klux Klan, who are the heroes of the film. Black men -- several of them played by White actors in blackface -- are portrayed as lazy and dangerous, or rapists. A Black male character is murdered off-screen by the KKK, with the event portrayed in a positive light.
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Violence & Scariness
Civil War battles with charging, shooting, smoke, chaos, and death, but no blood or gore. Abraham Lincoln is assassinated. A Black male character pursues a White woman, chasing her through the woods. Rather than be captured or attacked, the woman chooses to jump to her death over a cliff. Another woman is held hostage. The Ku Klux Klan murders a Black male character off-screen, but his dead body appears twice.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Some mild romantic longings, embraces, etc.
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
The new Black members of the Southern legislature are shown drinking on the job; their drunkenness is portrayed partly humorously but partly for outrage. Another Black character is portrayed as an angry drunk.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation marks a milestone in cinema history, yet it contains some of the most disturbingly racist images ever filmed. It depicts the American Civil War, and, as such, contains some battle scenes, though nothing overtly gory or bloody. The shooting of Abraham Lincoln is depicted. A Black male character, played by White actor Walter Long in blackface, tries to attack a White woman. She runs, leading to her accidental death. A Black male character is murdered by the Ku Klux Klan off-screen, but his dead body appears twice. Characters, mostly Black ones, are shown drinking and getting drunk. Strong caution -- and thoughtful post-movie discussions -- are advised.
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Where to Watch
Based on 2 parent reviews
Hate group recruitment tool
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Although it may be a landmark in cinema history, it is also disgustingly racist
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What's the Story?
In THE BIRTH OF A NATION, when the American Civil War strikes, two families find themselves on opposite sides. The Stonemans -- including protagonist Elsie (Lillian Gish) -- believe in the Union, while the Camerons choose the ideals of the South. After the war, the new Southern legislature, made up of Black politicians portrayed as 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 "heroic" vigilante group. When a formerly enslaved Black man attacks and chases Ben's younger sister, Flora (Mae Marsh), she plunges to her death, inciting Klan revenge. Will the South ever be the same again?
Is It Any Good?
D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation is as much a part of film history as the Civil War is a part of American history. It was one of a handful of productions of the time that, alongside the Italian film Cabiria (1914), experimented with long-form storytelling. It also advanced the medium in more technical ways, such as Griffith's invention of flashbacks as a narrative device and cinematographer Billy Bitzer's use of nighttime photography. But this presents a dilemma: How can we claim it as a "great" movie when it is so deeply racist?
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?
- In theaters: March 3, 1915
- On DVD or streaming: November 22, 2011
- Cast: Henry B. Walthall, Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh
- Director: D.W. Griffith
- Studio: Kino
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 192 minutes
- MPAA rating: NR
- Last updated: February 25, 2022
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