Birth of a Nation
Played by Henry WalthallThe noble savior of the South, proud founder of the Ku Klux Klan, and protagonist of the film. A genteel, intelligent family man, Ben, “the Little Colonel,” rises to great achievement when blacks threaten the honor of the South. His character has the greatest emotional range. He smiles broadly, cultivates a special, caring relationship with his youngest sister, and pats and touches his slaves affectionately (Griffith’s code for graciousness). But when war comes, he seethes with patriotic anger against the threat posed to traditional plantation life, expressing this anger by tossing his body around and writhing feverishly. Later, he fumes with racist hatred.
Played by Lillian GishThe idealistic, loyal daughter of the abolitionist leader Austin Stoneman. Elsie lovingly dotes on her family and often kneels deferentially at her father’s feet. Her fragile daguerreotype image helps Ben Cameron through the war. The audiences of 1915 would have been intimately familiar with Elsie’s pale white skin and deep-eyed expressions of innocence, for Gish was the superstar stage and screen actress of her time. Like today’s film celebrities, Gish conjured up a “type” for filmgoers: a frail, ethereal, pure-hearted beauty. Elsie’s presence floats angelically over the film.
Played by Ralph LewisThe abolitionist leader from the North who wields power over Reconstruction after Lincoln’s assassination, and the antagonist of the film. A bookish man who often holds meetings in his library, Stoneman is portrayed as physically flawed and lacking in moral character. He limps and walks with a cane, wears a wig, and lusts after his mulatto housekeeper.
Played by George SiegmannThe mulatto politician and overseer of day-to-day operations during Reconstruction who becomes South Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor. Portrayed as evil from the start because of his mixed-race parentage, Lynch often spies on Elsie or lusts after other women, giving sideways glances and clutching his hat anxiously. His character represents the stereotype of savage sexuality in people of African heritage.
Played by Mae Marsh as a teen and by Violet Wilkey as a childThe excitable, youngest Cameron sister who grows into a teenager during the course of the film. Often called “Little Sister,” Flora is at first impishly playful. As she matures over the course of the war, she serves as a metaphor for the sea changes swamping the South. She adores her older brother, Ben, and faces the ravages of the war bravely with an increasingly haggard appearance and a careworn face.
Played by Miriam CooperThe elder Cameron sister who eventually falls for Phil Stoneman. Trained in the etiquette of the old South, Margaret, a quiet, round-faced flower, moves with dignity. Her facial expressions are small and subtle but reveal a great deal of emotion behind her reserved façade.
Played by Elmer CliftonThe eldest Stoneman brother who takes a liking to Margaret Cameron. A respectful, top-hatted, mustached man with a quiet dignity, Phil slowly courts Margaret. In battle, he rises to become one of the most successful Union leaders.
Played by Robert HarronThe youngest Stoneman brother. Tod enlivens the screen as a wildly expressive, playful fop. Thin and energetic, Tod stands in strong contrast to the reserved demeanor of his older brother. Upon his visit to Piedmont, he resumes his boyish roughhousing with Duke.
Played in blackface by white actor Walter LongAn emancipated slave who lusts after Flora. Gus becomes an enemy of the Klan after pursuing Flora to her death.
Played by Spottiswoode AitkenThe aging head of the Cameron family. Dr. Cameron is thin, white-haired, and reserved. He reads the newspapers to his family, disseminating national information. Essentially powerless in the war, he nevertheless reigns over his family with patriarchal beneficence.
Played by George BerangerThe mustached, middle Cameron brother. Wade is little seen before he goes off to war. His death serves as another harsh reminder of war for the Camerons, who mourn him back at home.
Played by Maxfield StanleyThe youngest Cameron brother. Duke returns Tod Stoneman’s affection and playfulness, and his vibrancy around the Cameron homestead emphasizes his youth.
Played by Josephine CrowellThe stout, stoic wife of Dr. Cameron. Mrs. Cameron, with her tightly pulled-back hair, silently serves as a pillar of support for the Cameron girls at home. Mostly, she worries and mourns, especially over the loss of her three sons “to the cause.”
Played by Joseph HenaberyA god among men, referred to as the “Great Heart.” Lincoln genuinely acts for the benefit of all. When he rises from his chair, he stands above the surrounding representatives, who stay back at a detached, respectful distance. His tall stature indicates his moral superiority. Lincoln moves slowly and with dignity and looks in the distance as if he’s seeing far into the future. His death signals a devastating turning point for the South.
Played in blackface by white actress Mary AldenThe Stonemans’ housekeeper. A lustful mulatto, Lydia becomes sexually aroused whenever she overhears strong orders being given in Stoneman’s library. She licks her fingers, beats her breast, and eventually becomes Stoneman’s mistress.
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