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Birth of a Nation (1915), Movie Analysis PART 1: Social Structure & Symbolism

Updated on November 3, 2011

The Birth of a Nation is an epic film directed and produced by D. W. Griffith in 1915. It depicts the social reality of the era and the political atmosphere at that time. It details the civil war era and the plight of Black Americans for their rights. The Birth of a Nation also graphically portrayed the Ku Klux Klan and their involvement in suppressing slave uprising in the south. Despite the story line and the controversial context and theme of the movie, The Birth of a Nation is a film that utilized technological innovation and revolutionized techniques on film-making. Its influence over artistic presentation had inspired improvement and modernization on the way that movies are created today.


Symbolism of the Opening Scene

The Birth of a Nation opened with a flash card that reads: “If in this work we have conveyed to the mind the ravages of war to the end that war may be held in abhorrence, this effort will not have been in vain.” It was an attempt of Griffith to remind the audience that the film’s focus is on showcasing the destructive effects of war and how it ravages the country and family ties among its people.

Furthermore, it also tries to convey that the first seed of disunion was the presence of the Blacks. From this statement alone viewers would already realize the standpoint of the director. It is a blatant claim that it was the Blacks that caused war and civil unrest in America. Come to think of it, Americans or “Caucasians” were also migrants to the country; ergo the racist claim and racist theme of the movie. It is also evident during the last part wherein the Ku Klux Klan was depicted as saviors and heroes of the people.

The opening scene was indicative that the cause of war was due to the transportation of slaves to America. Viewers would already have an understanding as to the point of view of the director regarding the civil war and the political stand point. It was a warning that the film is a story about the “heroism” of the whites against the barbaric slaves. That the cause of disunity and civil unrest stem from the slaves and the only way to suppress it is through war.

Depiction of Southern and Northern Women

Women from the North and South were garb on elaborate clothes. All the women were wearing detailed costumes with ballooned skirts. Accessories like the umbrella used by the Northern woman while walking around the cotton plantation also accentuates the lavishness and posh of her garment. As opposed to black women and slaves, it was the Caucasians who wore impressive clothes. The clothes were also used to draw a defining line between the Americans and the blacks. It was the Americans who are always wearing fancy clothes while the blacks and slaves could be easily identified by merely looking at their clothes.

The women in general, regardless of the color of their skin, were treated as secondary characters. Females were the supporting roles of men. Not just speaking on the physical aspect of the movie, but in essence as well. It was their characters who are dependent on male figures—the daughter of a statesman being dependent to his father; a blushing maiden as an object of affection; and servant who was molested by her master. All these are depictions of the role of women in general during that era. They were some sort of prized possession that needs to be impressed and pampered. As depicted during the time the Southerners were showing of their farm to visiting Northern family friends. During the two hour dinner break of the slaves, they were task to perform to impress the ladies.

There was not much of an impact both on the film and on the flow of the story with regards to the female characters. Only through their elaborate costumes and attractive ornaments, they make each scenes interesting enough. It was also through their physical appearance that distinguishing marks are made. For case in point, the Northerners are portrayed as sophisticated ladies with very detailed clothes that add to their sophistication while the Southerner, with their fine clothes as well but not as elegant as that of the Northern ladies. It was probably the Mulatto who has the greatest contribution on how the story would progress.

Depiction of Southern and Northern Men

Like the women from the North, the male Northerners have more flair when it comes to fashion than their Southern counterpart. It was their clothes that set them apart. It was through clothes that sophistication and distinguishing mark of the two are made. Upon meeting of the two families, the young lads were checking out each other's clothes and making fun of each other. The difference in fashion sense was naively portrayed on that scene. The males from both north and south are dressed in a clean and gentleman fashion. It was during that era that hats and coats were casual daily clothes. Also, it was not unusual that men would wear their soldier’s uniform as formal attire. During the ball, the young soldier’s wore their uniform while dancing the night away with young maidens.

Moreover, the male clothes symbolize importance and power. The men on the gala were on their soldier’s uniform that is suggestive of their importance and role in the society while the Ku Klux Klan costume suggests the defining role of men as savior and hero of the people. It could also be rationalized that the Northerners were the progressive thinkers while the Southerners are more conservative who clings tenaciously to what they are accustomed to. The dichotomy of the two was scene as civil war broke.

the Southern Street Scenes Before & After the War

The Southern streets before the war were busy with the daily chores of the plantation. There were slaves moving about doing their businesses, plantation owners, walking around in leisurely fashion while contemplating on the vastness of the fields. There were horse driven wagons that carry young slaves—black children. One scene even had two black children fall of the wagon that got beat up by their master. Carriages were used as means of transportation of the wealthy.

When war erupted, the streets of the south were in complete chaos. There were men in horses riding about, bonfires and black men running havoc, there was death and confusion. The streets were filled with dead bodies by the hundreds. The streets were literally littered with corpses as the fight for freedom rages on. But after the civil war subsided, the streets transformed into aisles of victory. There were Americans on both sides of the streets paying homage to the bravery of the Ku Klux Klan. The Ku Klux Klan were like knights in shining armor parading on the streets, basking in the glory of their victory. It was a hero's welcome for the brave KKK's because they saved the people and the society from the civil unrest caused by the black slaves.


The Scene in the Legislature

The scene in the legislature is a pitiful one. The first scene was that of statesmen trying to communicate their thoughts to the masses who were in attendance. It was like a market place of people trying to “sell” their ideas. There were ushers collecting funds in support of the legislature. Yet another scene focuses on President Lincoln and statesmen as he signed the legislature calling for the 75, 000 volunteers. The actor who portrayed the president should be given kudos because his face and action says it all. It was through his expressive face that the audience gets to understand the emotions and gravity behind his political decisions. It was a tough call to make, but decisions have to be made. And President Abraham Lincoln rose to challenge.

I could associate the legislature as an all-male market place. The crowd was unruly and so were the statesmen. I think they were trying to convince the crowd and each other of their point. The second scene with Lincoln showed that he was problematic about the state of affair that the country was in. He was trying to convince the other of his cause for unification and how it would help the country develop. Also that that the rights of the blacks should be upheld and that they be treated as human beings.

Here it shows how visionary Lincoln was. However, this was dampened by the political and social atmosphere at that time which was racist.

Lydia and Sylas Lynch

The mulatto and the affair with her master touches a very sensitive social issue of that time-- inter-racial relationship which is considered taboo. By using a servant, the message became clear on how this kind of relationship could be related to. It was a blatant portrayal that it was even the mulatto's ambition that her master became prey. Though logically thinking, it was the master's lust that is at fault in the situation, it was his weakness that should be blamed. But nevertheless, Griffith found a way to twist and reverse the situation in such a way to assume that it was the master who has been victimized by the mulatto.

Also, the scene made sure that it was the Mulatto’s fault that the statesman falls pray. It was the Mullato’s infatuation over her master that made her loose her mind and exposed her flesh in the process, and in so doing attracted her master’s lust for her.

Role of the Animals in the Film

The puppy and the kitten symbolize the naiveté of the Northerners and Southerners. It was through this innocence and folly of youth that had led them to fight against each other. Their differences were also portrayed by using two different kind of animals meaning the two has different world views though as animals, they do see the world in the same light. It was a metaphor for the coming storm, when a cat was placed with a sleepy dog. The aim of the two was not to eliminate each other but of trying to prove that the one is more supreme than the other. In the end, the brotherhood between the Northerners and Southerners prevail.

The animals were used as representation of the Northerners and the Southerners. The puppy and the kitten for instance were at first frolicking on the veranda during the pre-war and early part of the story. It depicts the playful nature and strong bonds despite the differences in their beliefs and culture.

The animals could also represent the Whites and the Black slaves. When the scene focused on the resting dog on the feet of the plantation owner, and then included a cat on the scene, it was a metaphor for placing the Africans in America. Again, it was the director’s point, which he made clear during the opening scene, that the cause of disunity in America was when Africans were imported to the land. Thus, the “brewing storm” flash card to make sure that the audience get the meaning of a seemingly innocent portrayal of a puppy and a kitten.

Lincoln’s Assassination Scene

Lincoln was assassinated on a theatre while watching a play. Griffith's attention to historical accuracy is depicted on this scene as the suspect leaps and aims at Lincoln. This tragic episode led to further unrest in the south. He was the champion of the black human rights movement and now he is dead.

The assassination of Lincoln was very detailed. Griffith made a dramatic representation by making sure that the scene involves every small detail starting from the arrival of Lincoln’s party. Everybody was waiting for them to arrive so all eyes was fix at them when they showed up at the box in the theatre. Griffith highlighted on how the attention of the people shifted on the play which makes the assassination attempt possible for which becomes the opportune moment for the assassin to make his move. There was also a focus on how the assassination process took place by shifting the focus of the scene and highlighting the assassin. The detailed movement on how the assassin was able to come near President Lincoln—the President’s bodyguard changes his post so he too could watch the play, and shot the president.


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