The Birth of a Nation (originally called The Clansman) is a 1915 American silent epic drama film directed by D. W. Griffith and starring Lillian Gish. The screenplay is adapted from the novel and play The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon Jr. Griffith co-wrote the screenplay with Frank E. Woods and produced the film with Harry Aitken.
The Birth of a Nation is a landmark of film history. It was the first 12-reel film ever made and, at three hours, also the longest up to that point. Its plot, part fiction and part history, chronicling the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth and the relationship of two families in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras over the course of several years—the pro-Union (Northern) Stonemans and the pro-Confederacy (Southern) Camerons—was by far the most complex of any movie made up to that date. It was originally shown in two parts separated by another movie innovation, an intermission, and it was the first to have a musical score for an orchestra. It pioneered close-ups, fade-outs, and a carefully staged battle sequence with hundreds of extras (another first) made to look like thousands. It came with a 13-page “Souvenir Program”. It was the first American motion picture to be screened in the White House, viewed there by President Woodrow Wilson.
The film was controversial even before its release and has remained so ever since; it has been called “the most controversial film ever made in the United States”. Lincoln, whom Dixon saw as a Southerner, was portrayed positively, unusual in a “Lost Cause” environment. However, the film portrayed African-Americans (many played by white actors in blackface) as unintelligent and sexually aggressive towards white women and presented the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) as a heroic force.= There were widespread black protests against The Birth of a Nation, such as in Boston, while thousands of white Bostonians flocked to see the film. The NAACP spearheaded an unsuccessful campaign to ban the film. Griffith’s indignation at efforts to censor or ban the film motivated him to produce Intolerance the following year.
It was a huge commercial success and became highly influential. The film’s release has also been acknowledged as an inspiration for the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan only months later. In 1992, the Library of Congress deemed the film “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.