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|“||The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation... until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.||„|
|~ Intertitle quoting Woodrow Wilson's "History of the American People," The Birth of a Nation|
Benjamin Cameron is a member of the wealthy South Carolina Cameron family and first appears in the film welcoming members of the Northern abolitionist Stoneman family when they visit his estate. While Phil Stoneman falls for Ben's sister Margaret, Ben is entranced by a locket containing a picture of Elsie Stoneman, carrying it with him. When the Civil War breaks out, Ben and his two brothers enlist in the Confederate Army. Ben's brothers are killed in combat, but Ben becomes a war hero leading a suicide charge during the siege of Petersburg. Captured in the wake of the charge, Ben recovers in a Union hospital where Elsie Stoneman is working as a nurse. As Elsie tends to him, Ben recognizes her and shows her the locket. Elsie returns his affections, but soon learns that Ben is to be put to death as a Confederate guerilla. When Ben's mother arrives, Elsie warns her and she appeals the case before President Abraham Lincoln, who pardons Ben.
After Lincoln's assassination, his plans for mercy towards the defeated South are disregarded by the Stoneman family patriarch Austin, a Republican representative, who sends his sadistic protege Silas Lynch, a mulatto, to South Carolina to implement harsh policies against the former Confederacy. When Ben returns home, he finds his town a shadow of its former self with armed black soldiers marching in the streets and oppressing whites at every opportunity. To make matters worse, Lynch makes his headquarters in the Cameron estate, soon joined by Austin and Elsie Stoneman. Lynch is elected lieutenant governor in a chaotic election, with blacks free to stuff the ballot boxes while whites are forcibly kept away. With blacks now filling the South Carolina legislature, they are free to pass laws requiring white civilians to salute black soldiers and the legalization of mixed-race marriages.
Frustrated by the new laws, Ben is inspired one day while watching white children pretending to be ghosts to frighten black children. Gathering others to his cause, Ben forms the Ku Klux Klan to protect whites for black predation. Angered by early Klan successes, Lynch and Austin outlaw the organization and Elsie, loyal to her father, breaks up with Ben, who she discovers is a leader of the Klan. Meanwhile, Ben's sister Flora commits suicide to prevent a black soldier named Gus from raping her. Led by Ben, a Klan posse hunts down Gus, who kills several white vigilantes in a gunfight before being captured and lynched. Gus' body is left on Silas Lynch's doorstep.
In response, Lynch orders anyone found in possession of Klan robes to be put to death. When Ben's father is discovered with Ben's robes, he is arrested, but his loyal black servants, along with Phil Stoneman and Margaret Cameron, free him before he can be executed. Fleeing into the countryside pursued by black militia, they take refuge in a cabin owned by former Union soldiers who, sympathetic to their plight, ironically help them fight the besieging militiamen. Elsie, hearing about the arrest, tries to plead his case before Lynch, but Lynch instead asks for her hand in marriage. When she refuses, Lynch holds her captive and orders his men to prepare for the marriage ceremony anyway. Austin meets with Lynch and is initially happy when he hears Lynch plans to marry a white woman, but is shocked when he hears that it is his own daughter. Austin refuses to let Lynch marry Elsie, but Lynch has Austin held hostage as well.
Klansmen disguised as civilians learn about Elsie's situation when she breaks a window and screams for help before being overpowered again, and they rush to warn Ben. At the head of an army of Klansmen, Ben storms into the town, fights off the occupying black militia, captures Lynch, and frees the Stonemans. Hearing about his father's situation, he then leads the Klan in breaking the siege just as it appears his father, Phil, and Margaret will be killed.
When the day of the next election arrives, the blacks are kept away from the voting booths by armed Klansmen. Ben marries Elsie, while Phil marries Margaret.
- The Birth of a Nation was based on a trilogy of novels written by Thomas Dixon, Jr. - The Clansman, The Leopard's Spots, and The Traitor. Though Dixon grew up in the Reconstruction and was a supporter of the original Ku Klux Klan, Birth of a Nation director D. W. Griffith claimed he had no political or racial agenda with his movie and wanted an unbiased adaptation of the novels. Nevertheless, the movie was highly controversial when it came out, with the NAACP protesting outside the theaters where the film premiered. Multiple race riots and racially-motivated murders were linked with the film's release. William Joseph Simmons, the man usually credited with founding the KKK's second incarnation, used the film as a recruiting tool and it is believed that much of the modern Klan's iconography, including white robes and burning crosses, were inspired by the film.
- Despite the controversy surrounding it, The Birth of a Nation is significant in film history for introducing many filming techniques that are still used today, such as parallel action, long shots, and night photography. It was also the first film to be screened at the White House.