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The Birth of a Nation - Racism, Ethics and LeadershipThe Birth of a Nation - Racism, Ethics and Leadership


The Birth of a Nation (1915)


Famous for...

  • Being the first big budget Hollywood silent movie.
  • Racism - the film's heroes are the Ku Klux Klan, who terrorized and killed African Americans (who in the film are inferior and played by white people with black faces).
  • Inspiring a revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920's. The Birth of a Nation - Racism, Ethics and Leadership


Set during and after...

The American Civil War in which the North (the Union side) led by the president, Abraham Lincoln (pictured right), fought the South (the Confederates) over the abolition of slavery.

 The Birth of a Nation - Racism, Ethics and Leadership

Based on...

Thomas Dixon’s (pictured right) novel, The Clansman.


DirectorThe Birth of a Nation - Racism, Ethics and Leadership

D.W. Griffith (pictured right).



None (the Oscars started in 1929).

 The Birth of a Nation - Racism, Ethics and Leadership

Key characters

Elsie Stoneman (Lilian Gish, then a movie superstar), a beautiful young lady from Washington in the North (pictured right).

Ben Cameron (Henry Walthal), colonel in the Confederate army from Piedmont, South Carolina, and founder of the Ku Klux Klan.


The story

The Stonemans, a Northern family, become friendly with the Camerons from South Carolina in the South, where African Americans are slaves.

Ben Cameron falls for Elsie Stoneman (the daughter of the abolitionist leader, Austin Stoneman) just before the outbreak of the American Civil War.The Birth of a Nation - Racism, Ethics and Leadership

(Ben and Elsie are pictured right together).  

Ben, with his brothers, Wade and Duke, join the Confederate army and Elsie’s brothers, Phil (in love with Ben's sister, Margaret) and Tod, join the Unionists on the North’s side.

Duke and Tod die in each other’s arms on the battlefield and Wade is killed in Atlanta. The film shows the Unionist army as the villains, destroying Georgia and ransacking the Camerons’ house.

Ben and Phil meet in battle. Ben is heroic (saving an enemy soldier) and taken to a Unionist hospital, where he meets Elsie, a nurse.

On hearing a personal appeal from Elsie’s mother, President Lincoln pardons Ben of a false charge of spying and so saves him from execution.

After the war, Ben returns to his destroyed home and greatly mourns Lincoln’s assassination.

But he hates Lincoln's pro-black replacement, Austin Stoneman

His half-black deputy, Silas Lynch, is attracted to Elsie and organizes a vengeful rebellion of former slaves against the whites.

The Cameron and Stoneman families are now drifting apart because of the war’s bitter memories.

Looting by blacks and their state election victory prompt Ben to form the Ku Klux Klan to fight the “black supremacy” of the African American government, led by Lynch. Blacks are thrilled with their new equal rights.

Elsie is so upset by Ben's racism that she ends their engagement. He leads thousands of the Klan against Lynch’s men.The Birth of a Nation - Racism, Ethics and Leadership

A black officer and ex-slave, Gus, chases Ben’s sister, Flora, who refuses to marry or even touch him (despite his assurances that he won’t harm her).

Gus chases her to a cliff edge and Flora falls off, dying shortly after in Ben’s arms. The Klan capture Gus (pictured right), lynch him and dump his body at Lynch’s door.

Lynch’s men (including whites) seek revenge against the Klan, and  Ben’s father, his sister (Margaret) and Elsie’s brother (Phil) flee to a country cabin.

Elsie asks Lynch to help them, but he tries to force her to marry him, promising to make her queen of his “Black Empire”. Her hypocritical father is appalled by the idea, even though he is lusting after his black housekeeper, Lydia.

The Klan rescue Elsie from Lynch and everyone at the cabin. At the next election blacks are disenfranchized (through intimidation by the Klan)  and a white government exploits and enslaves them

Elsie marries Ben, despite her misgivings about the Klan. Phil also marries Margaret.


Lessons for racism, ethics and leadership

 The Birth of a Nation - Racism, Ethics and Leadership

1. Racism is wrong

The film’s racism shows that the civil war didn’t give African Americans:

  • equality with whites (despite the abolition of slavery).
  • peace (blacks continued to be threatened by fear and violence, particularly from the Ku Klux Klan).

The Ku Klux Klan kills Gus, whose only crime is to love a white woman.


  The Birth of a Nation - Racism, Ethics and Leadership

2. The power of propaganda

The false portrayal of the blacks and abolitionists shows how the cinema can be used to mislead people.

The heroes are the Ku Klux Klan (pictured right in 1922) but they are evil racists.



3. War is wicked

The Civil War:The Birth of a Nation - Racism, Ethics and Leadership

  • turns Ben (pictured right in battle) from a kind, genteel man (saving an enemy soldier) into the racist founder of the Ku Klux Klan.
  • kills Wade, Tod and Duke
  • strains the friendship between the Stoneman and Cameron families.

Elsie’s purity and beauty contrast with the horrors of war.

 The Birth of a Nation - Racism, Ethics and Leadership


4. Life is full of painful choices

Elsie chooses Ben, even though she hates his racism and the Ku Klux Klan.


 The Birth of a Nation - Racism, Ethics and Leadership

5. Hypocrisy is horrible

Elsie’s father is appalled by her possible marriage to Lynch, but this doesn’t stop him lusting after his black housemaid, Lydia.



6. We need great leadersThe Birth of a Nation - Racism, Ethics and Leadership

Abraham Lincoln:

  • unites the North and South (by being moral, fair and magnanimous).
  • saves Ben from a false spying charge.



Key quote on war 

War, the breeder of hate (film caption).


Two film websites to recommend

1. filmsite.org (run by Tim Dirks).

2. aveleyman.com (run by Tony Sullivan)



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