The Birth of a Nation (originally called The Clansman) is a 1915 silent drama film directed by D. W. Griffith and based on the novel and play The Clansman, both by Thomas Dixon, Jr. Griffith co-wrote the screenplay (with Frank E. Woods), and co-produced the film (with Harry Aitken). It was released on February 8, 1915.
A court ruling in 1916 (concerning the state of Ohio's ban of The Birth of A Nation) held that film could legally be subject to censorship because of its vivid psychological effects and audiences (including women, children, and the "lower classes") who the court deemed more impressionable than the readers of printed matter.
By some, Birth of a Nation was seen as a clandestine way to re-institue the Klu Klux Klan. While D.W. Griffith claimed no association with the Klu Klux Klan, "the film had done more in a few months time to around interest in the originial Klan, than all the articles written on the subject during the last forty years".
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which had been founded in 1909, repeatedly petitioned authorities either to prohibit showing of the film or to excise the most offensive scenes. Although their efforts met with little success, the actions taken by the NAACP had the result of increasing the stature as well as the membership of the fledgling organization.
This 1915 film was released during a time when segregation was becoming a more common part of American society, specifically, but not exclusively in the South. However, during this time of racial tension, African Americans were becoming more powerful in the political and social spheres of American society.
D.W. Griffith screened his films for the urban working-class as well as for presidents at the White House. Griffith’s films became part of history in the making—unleashing the power of movies as a catalyst for social change. More than anyone of the silent era, he saw film’s potential as an expressive medium, and exploited that potential.
Griffith came by the Lost Cause prejudices depicted throughout the film honestly. He learned his Civil War mythology from his besotted father, a former Confederate cavalry officer, whose fortune and social position were destroyed by the war and Reconstruction.
Director Griffith's original budget of $40,000 (expanded to $60,000) quickly ballooned, so Griffith appealed to businessmen and other investors to help finance the film - that eventually cost $110,000! The propagandistic film was one of the biggest box-office money-makers in the history of film, partly due to its exorbitant charge of $2 per ticket - unheard of at the time.
"D. W. Griffith—arguably the most talented and successful Hollywood director of the silent film era—cowrote, produced, directed, coedited, and coscored The Birth of a Nation with a budget and cast unprecedented in early silent films. The Birth of a Nation’s epic scale and its pathbreaking editing and cinematic techniques made it an instant film classic, praised by such cultural figures as the poet Vachel Lindsay, who described The Birth of a Nation as “art by lightning flash.”
The Birth of a Nation was based on two novels written by Thomas Dixon, Jr.: The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden, 1865-1900 (1902), which the author described as a "sequel" to Uncle Tom's Cabin as well as a refutation of Stowe's novel, and The Clansman, An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905). Born in North Carolina near the end of the Civil War, Dixon had strong ties to the Confederacy and close relatives among the early leaders of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Birth of a Nation, which appeared in March 1915, was both one of the landmarks in the history of American cinema and a landmark in American racism. Historian Thomas Cripps has characterized The Birth of a Nation as “at once a major stride for cinema and a sacrifice of black humanity to the cause of racism.”