The Birth of a Nation (1915) - Rotten Tomatoes

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

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Critic Consensus: Racial depictions aside, The Birth of a Nation is a landmark film whose achievements and pioneering techniques remain fully relevant today.

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The most successful and artistically advanced film of its time, The Birth of a Nation has also sparked protests, riots, and divisiveness since its first release. The film tells the story of the Civil War and its aftermath, as seen through the eyes of two families. The Stonemans hail from the North, the Camerons from the South. When war breaks out, the Stonemans cast their lot with the Union, while the Camerons are loyal to Dixie. After the war, Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall), distressed that his beloved south is now under the rule of blacks and carpetbaggers, organizes several like-minded Southerners into a secret vigilante group called the Ku Klux Klan. When Cameron's beloved younger sister Flora (Mae Marsh) leaps to her death rather than surrender to the lustful advances of renegade slave Gus (Walter Long), the Klan wages war on the new Northern-inspired government and ultimately restores "order" to the South. In the original prints, Griffith suggested that the black population be shipped to Liberia, citing Abraham Lincoln as the inspiration for this ethnic cleansing. Showings of Birth of a Nation were picketed and boycotted from the start, and as recently as 1995, Turner Classic Movies cancelled a showing of a restored print in the wake of the racial tensions around the O.J. Simpson trial verdict. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

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Cast

Henry B. Walthall
as Col. Ben Cameron
Mae Marsh
as Flora Cameron
Miriam Cooper
as Margaret Cameron
Ralph Lewis
as Hon. Austin Stoneman
George Seigmann
as Silas Lynch
Wallace Reid
as Jeff the blacksmith
Joseph Henabery
as Abraham Lincoln
Joseph Henaberry
as Abraham Lincoln
Josephine Crowell
as Mrs. Cameron
Jennifer Lee
as Cindy, The Faithful Mummy
Andre Beringer
as Wade Cameron
Alberta Lee
as Mrs. Lincoln
George Siegmann
as Silas Lynch
Maxfield Stanley
as Duke Cameron
Donald Crisp
as Gen. U.S. Grant
Howard Gaye
as Gen. Robert E. Lee
Sam De Grasse
as Sen. Charles Sumner
Charles Stevens
as Volunteer
Raoul Walsh
as John Wilkes Booth
Elmo Lincoln
as Blacksmith
Erich von Stroheim
as Man who falls from Roof
Olga Grey
as Laura Keene
Eugene Pallette
as Union Soldier
Violet Wilkey
as Flora as a child
Bessie Love
as Piedmont girl
Spottiswood Aitken
as Dr. Cameron
Tom Wilson
as Stoneman's Servant
John Ford
as Klansman
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Critic Reviews for The Birth of a Nation

All Critics (38) | Top Critics (6)

Problematically, Birth of a Nation wasn't just a seminal commercial spectacle but also a decisively original work of art -- in effect, the founding work of cinematic realism, albeit a work that was developed to pass lies off as reality.

August 19, 2013 | Full Review…

Birth of a Nation is a great epoch in picture making; it's great for pictures and it's great for the name and fame of David Wark Griffith. When a man like Griffith in a new field can do what he has done, he may as well be hailed while he is living.

February 6, 2008 | Full Review…

Griffith's later films are unquestionably superior. But here, in a very real sense, is where the movies began, both as an art and as a business.

February 6, 2008 | Full Review…

The civil war battle pictures, taken in panorama, represent enormous effort and achieve a striking degree of success.

March 25, 2006 | Full Review…
Top Critic

The biggest challenge the film provided for its audiences is perhaps to decide when 'ground-breaking, dedicated, serious cinematic art' must be reviled as politically reprehensible.

February 9, 2006 | Full Review…
Top Critic

It is an unavoidable fact of American movie history, and must be dealt with.

April 20, 2003 | Rating: 4/4 | Full Review…

Audience Reviews for The Birth of a Nation

½

It was definitely innovative in many ways when it came out and still delivers a timeless anti-war message, but it is nearly impossible to read "the helpless white minority" and not feel outraged by the film's odious racism as it vilifies black people and glorifies the Ku Klux Klan.

Carlos Magalhães
Carlos Magalhães

Super Reviewer

½

Considering the age and the state of film making when this was made this is an awesome achievement. However it is so wildly and insultingly racist, and its rewriting of history so blatant, that those aspects diminish its overall worth a great deal. Still from a technical viewpoint its dazzling.

jay nixon
jay nixon

Super Reviewer

Ignore the five star rating I gave to "The Birth of a Nation" and let's not even discuss it, for ratings are wholly irrelevant in the context of this film. A culmination of all knowledge gained during the silent film era, this D. W. Griffith landmark is as much part of American history as the Civil War, and its impact on our society as well as American cinema cannot be overstated. The camera and storytelling techniques pioneered in the making of "Nation" have influenced nearly every film that came after it, and modern cinema owes a great debt to the director for his unwavering vision and talent. However, I cannot say that I enjoyed the film, as "Nation" is clearly a direct reflection of the director's deeply racist opinions, and is simply put a morally reprehensible affair. Nevertheless, it is permanent blemish in the pages of our American history, and it must be confronted; discussion and reflection are the preferred methods, not blissful ignorance.

Kristijonas Fussman
Kristijonas Fussman

Super Reviewer

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