The Birth of a Nation

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
The Birth of a Nation Movie Poster Image
Landmark American classic is as troubling as it is great.
  • NR
  • 1915
  • 192 minutes

Parents say

age 12+
Based on 2 reviews

Kids say

age 9+
Based on 1 review

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

There is evidence of teamwork and rising to meet challenges in this movie, but the reasons are based on hatred, bigotry, and revenge.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Unless you count Abraham Lincoln, who has a supporting role in this story, the movie's focus is not on anyone who could be considered a role model. The female characters are good, decent folks, but the characters who drive the story forward do so based on intolerance and revenge.

Violence

Civil War battles with charging, shooting, smoke, chaos, and death, but no blood or gore. Abraham Lincoln is assassinated. A black slave aggressively 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.

Sex

Some mild romantic longings, embraces, etc.

Language
Consumerism
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 portayed as an angry drunk.

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.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byBill J. June 5, 2017

Way better then the 2016 one

Not racist at all but has great messages.
Parent Written byTruman B. February 20, 2018

Although it may be a landmark in cinema history, it is also disgustingly racist

Don't let your children go see this film. It is racist and might mess with their brains. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
Kid, 9 years old July 10, 2013

historic, intreating classic film yet extremely racist

i am 9 years old (and a super movie buff( I don't COMPLETELY agree with the age ratings here. if your kid is 9, 10 or 11 if and they are mature enough they... Continue reading

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?

Yet it's a beautifully made movie. It was one of a handful of productions of the time that, alongside the Italian film Cabiria (1914), experimented with long-form storytelling. After directing dozens of two-reelers, and perfecting much of the basic language of film, Griffith was remarkably suited to this new, long format. He balances his subplots clearly and edits with grace. He builds rhythms, with peaks and valleys, and carries the viewer through with effective dramatic momentum. The movie likewise contains moments of great beauty and artistry.

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?

Movie details

For kids who love history

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