The Birth of a Nation ½

A nasty piece of racist propaganda, revealing the ever present scars left by slavery and the American civil war. I find the historical implications of this film unforgivable. Demonstrating the power of film and art, this film almost single-handedly revived the Ku Klux Klan movement. In this film, history is not written by the victor as many often assume; rather, it is written by those with the means to write it (ie, the rich for the fearful and uneducated). In this way, the United States has changed little, as the distortion of facts (historical and otherwise) by the rich continues to plague both our political system and general discourse, leading to worse conditions for everyone at the bottom while the wealthy grow exceedingly wealthier.

The Birth of a Nation diverts attention from the wealthy's repression of common progressive values and the labor movement (which had achieved positive societal change throughout the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, especially in the south) and instead turns the uneducated against former slaves. In doing so, this propaganda film sets up one of the main tenants of 20th and 21st century fascism: blaming a minority group. Watching this film, I was reminded of the fascist regimes that sprang up across the world in the aftermath of the first World War and the Great Depression, and especially of Nazi German propaganda films like Jud Süß.

I think the most painful thing about this movie, though, is that the racism depicted on screen has yet to die, and continues to be used by the elite as a method of diverting attention and maintaining power.
Compare the past with the present in these two examples:

President Woodrow Wilson (a graduate student in history), who viewed The Birth of a Nation in 1915, is quoted as saying, "It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true" (Yellin).

In much the same vein, during his Presidential campaign, Donald Trump was reluctant to disavow David Duke, former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, after receiving an endorsement (New York Times); in 2017, he referred to some of those who marched alongside white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia as “very fine people” (Politico).

I recognize that this hasn't been much a traditional film review, but I would rather impart the danger of racist propaganda (past or present) than give my opinions on whether or not a particular scene was lit well.


Yellin, Eric S. (2013). Racism in the Nation's Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson's America

New York Times: