Hollywood’s first
silent produced film The Birth of a
Nation seemed to be the most successful advanced film of its time. The Birth of a Nation was the first film
that was shown in the White House, it definitely sparked arguments, riots, and
divisiveness since its very first release. The film’s director D.W Griffith, had
techniques and storytelling power which made The Birth of a Nation an important landmark in film history.

“Birth of a Nation”
shows how many early twentieth-century Americans wanted to view the Civil War,
and fantasize the South in some romantic way. It also pictures how assumptions
about other races really helped bring together white Americans, and shows white
Southerners as the victims. Some historians believe that this film exposed a
philosophy that excused the violence and inequality. The film was being
advertised as “authentic and accurate,”  the main African American characters in the
film—were all played by white American actors in blackface.

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            In the film the storyline is around two families who are
friends because their sons board together at school during the time of the
Civil War and The Reconstruction. The Cameron’s, the Southern family, own a
modest plantation in Piedmont, South Carolina. In their plantation, many slaves
are shown picking cotton joyfully, and dancing to entertain and make their masters
happy too. The Cameron family consists of five siblings.  Throughout the motion picture, Ben seems to
become the main character and is shown defending the Souths mindset.

While
the Northern family, The Stoneman’s live in Washington, D.C., and own a getaway
in Pennsylvania. The ethical Austin Stoneman, who is an abolitionist politician,
administers his family. The film seems to be in halves, with historical
chronological events during the Civil War. After an introduction that indicts
the Civil War and Reconstruction on the introduction of Africans to America, the
Stoneman boys go South during to visit their old friends. Romances develop, and
Dr. Cameron reads a newspaper stating that the South will separate from the
Union if the North Carries in the next elections. After the Stoneman’s leave
the South, the war begins and complicates things between the two families.

            While the film seemed to be a hit, it was also problematic
due to its perspective of American history. Griffith paints the picture of the
KKK as heroes and Southern blacks as villains, and gives the idea that they are
a threat to America. The film also explored two massive American problems:
inter-racial sex and marriage, and the empowerment of African American people. The
first mention of war is the scene where Abraham Lincoln signs the call for the
first seventy-five thousand volunteers, the film also seemed to portray Abraham
Lincoln as a friend of the Confederacy, and refers to him as “The Great Heart.”
The film also suggested that the Ku Klux Klan restored order to the postwar
South, which was depicted as endangered by abolitionists, freedmen, and “carpet-bagging
Republican” politicians from the North. Griffith portrayed the emancipated
slaves as heathens, as unworthy of being free, uncivilized, and primarily
concerned with passing laws so that they could marry white women and “prey on
them.” When in reality, was not true. But at the time when it was released,
much of the storyline was accepted as “historically accurate.” Not only did the
film showcase a different view on American history, but it also had themes and
symbolism.

            One of the themes that poked out was preserving Southern
honor. Though in actual history, the South ultimately loses the Civil War,
Griffith exploits every opportunity to present the Southern forces as the
heroes. Since the South is known for embodying honor and nobility, every defeat
the Southerners suffer in the movie, seems to be redeemed by the courage that
the Southerners display throughout the film. An example of this would be when
Ben Cameron’s troops are defeated only because they haven’t eaten in days and
the Northern army greatly outnumbers them. Even in that severe situation, his
troops still manage to risk their lives in a final attack to show that the
South will still be brave and fight to honor their ideals. As seen in the movie
when the South loses the battle, its honor and glory are kept and impressed
amongst the minds of the Northern invaders which symbolizes that the Southern
honor goes far beyond the battle scenes.

            Another theme that cannot go unintroduced is “proper relationships.”
Birth of a Nation features a handful
amount of developing personal relationships. Which are Ben and Elsie, Phil and
Margaret, and lastly, Stoneman and Lydia. As well as relationships that are
pursued, but never consummated in any way,­­ whom are Lynch and Elsie, Gus and
Flora. The film seems to separates the relationships into two kinds: those that
are “natural and divine”, and those that are “evil.” In the film, it is obvious
that it condemns relationships that are solely based on physical attraction. An
example of this would be when Stoneman touches Lydia’s naked shoulder, and then
they become sexually intimate with one another, and Lynch lusts after Elsie.
The film also banishes the idea of bi-racial relationships, such as Gus chasing
after Flora which is depicted as disgusting and inhumane. Both Gus and Lynch
rush to have the item of their desire, which is a symptom of an unnatural relationship.
While Ben and Elsie are reunited with a war injury after Ben dreams of her for
two years, along while Phil and Margaret seem to have instant chemistry upon
meeting each other, and are shown developing a traditional and gentle relationship
that the writers seem to encourage throughout the film. Both of these
relationships follow the theme of  “proper
relationships.” Along with these themes, there are also a few symbols in the
movie.

            Hollywood’s first film had major symbolism in certain
areas. Costuming is one of the very important symbols, and certainly tells the
essential parts of the characters in the film itself. In one particular scene,
there is a part where the “renegade” blacks rampage the Cameron home and one
man on camera is shown only wearing a tattered shirt that shows off his bulging
muscles. The whole tattered shirt outfit seems to effectively symbolize slaves
true “savagery.”

            Another major symbol in the film is President Abraham
Lincoln himself. The film portrays Lincoln with respect and they associate him
with goodness as mentioned earlier. The film’s characters seem to treat and see
Lincoln as some sort of Godly figure, and an example of this is when Mrs.
Cameron appears to be implying that Lincoln could save her sons life. As read
in the Bible, we know for a face that Jesus is written giving miracles to
people who need them, and healing those who are sick.

            In conclusion, although the film is
very controversial and racist; it was seen as correct and accurate at it’s
time. It is an important part of our social U.S history, and Hollywood history.
It’s messages and storyline were written out of an artistic vision, and was the
first film to have a positive and negative impact on the American people who
stood on either side of the Civil War.