Birth of a Nation is an American movie that was released in the year 1915. The movie was directed by D. W. Griffith and starred Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh
The film follows two juxtaposed families. One is the Northern Stonemans: abolitionist U.S. Representative Austin Stoneman (based on the Reconstruction-era Representative Thaddeus Stevens), his daughter, and two sons. The other is the Southern Camerons: Dr. Cameron, his wife, their three sons and two daughters. Phil, the elder Stoneman son, falls in love with Margaret Cameron, during the brothers’ visit to the Cameron estate in South Carolina, representing the Old South. Meanwhile, young Ben Cameron idolizes a picture of Elsie Stoneman. During the Civil War, the young men from both families enlist in their respective armies for the war. The younger Stoneman and two of the Cameron brothers are killed in the war. Meanwhile, the Cameron women are rescued by Confederate soldiers who rout a black militia, after an attack on the Cameron home. Ben Cameron leads a heroic charge at the Siege of Petersburg, earning the nickname of “the Little Colonel”. But he is also wounded and captured. He is then taken to a Union hospital in Washington, D.C.
During his stay at the hospital, he is told that he will be hanged. Also at the hospital, he meets Elsie Stoneman, whose picture he has been carrying; she is working there as a nurse. Elsie takes Cameron’s mother, who had traveled to Washington to tend her son, to see Abraham Lincoln, and Mrs. Cameron persuades the President to pardon Ben. When Lincoln is assassinated at Ford’s Theatre, his conciliatory postwar policy expires with him. In the wake of the president’s death, Austin Stoneman and other Radical Republicans are determined to punish the South, employing harsh measures that Griffith depicts as having been typical of the Reconstruction Era.
Stoneman and his protégé Silas Lynch, a mulatto exhibiting psychopathic tendencies, head to South Carolina to observe the implementation of Reconstruction policies firsthand. During the election, in which Lynch is elected lieutenant governor, blacks are observed stuffing the ballot boxes, while many Whites are denied the vote. The newly elected, mostly black members of the South Carolina legislature are shown at their desks displaying inappropriate behavior, such as one member taking off his shoe and putting his feet up on his desk, and others drinking liquor and feasting on stereotypically African-American fare such as fried chicken.
Meanwhile, inspired by observing white children pretending to be ghosts to scare black children, Ben fights back by forming the Ku Klux Klan. As a result, Elsie, out of loyalty to her father, breaks off her relationship with Ben. Later, Flora Cameron goes off alone into the woods to fetch water and is followed by Gus, a freedman and soldier who is now a captain. He confronts Flora and tells her that he desires to get married. Frightened, she flees into the forest, pursued by Gus. Trapped on a precipice, Flora warns Gus she will jump if he comes any closer. When he does, she leaps to her death. Having run through the forest looking for her, Ben has seen her jump; he holds her as she dies, then carries her body back to the Cameron home. In response, the Klan hunts down Gus, tries him, finds him guilty, and lynches him.
Lynch then orders a crackdown on the Klan after discovering Gus’ murder. He also secures the passing of legislation allowing mixed-race marriages. Dr. Cameron is arrested for possessing Ben’s Klan regalia, now considered a crime punishable by death. He is rescued by Phil Stoneman and a few of his black servants. Together with Margaret Cameron, they flee. When their wagon breaks down, they make their way through the woods to a small hut that is home to two sympathetic former Union soldiers who agree to hide them. An intertitle states, “The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright.”
Congressman Stoneman leaves to avoid being connected with Lt. Gov. Lynch’s crackdown. Elsie, learning of Dr. Cameron’s arrest, goes to Lynch to plead for his release. Lynch, who had been lusting after Elsie, tries to force her to marry him, which causes her to faint. Stoneman returns, causing Elsie to be placed in another room. At first, Stoneman is happy when Lynch tells him he wants to marry a white woman, but is then angered when Lynch tells him that it is Stoneman’s daughter. Undercover Klansmen spies go to get help when they discover Elsie’s plight after she breaks a window and cries out for help. Elsie falls unconscious again, and revives while gagged and being bound. The Klan, gathered together at full strength and with Ben leading them, rides in to gain control of the town. When news about Elsie reaches Ben, he and others go to her rescue. Elsie frees her mouth and screams for help. Lynch is captured. Victorious, the Klansmen celebrate in the streets. Meanwhile, Lynch’s militia surrounds and attacks the hut where the Camerons are hiding. The Klansmen, with Ben at their head, race in to save them just in time. The next election day, blacks find a line of mounted and armed Klansmen just outside their homes, and are intimidated into not voting.
The film concludes with a double wedding as Margaret Cameron marries Phil Stoneman and Elsie Stoneman marries Ben Cameron. The masses are shown oppressed by a giant warlike figure who gradually fades away. The scene shifts to another group finding peace under the image of Jesus Christ. The penultimate title is: “Dare we dream of a golden day when the bestial War shall rule no more. But instead — the gentle Prince in the Hall of Brotherly Love in the City of Peace.”