Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Costumes are essential parts of how characters are realized in The Birth of a Nation. When “renegade” blacks rampage the Cameron home, one man featured on camera wears only a torn scrap of shirt, exposing his bulging muscles. The man’s clothes effectively symbolize his savagery. Likewise, in the South Carolina legislature, the newly elected black representatives kick their shoes off and throw their bare feet up on the desk. When Ben returns home to Piedmont to a degraded plantation, Flora wants to greet him with her best dress, but the Camerons have little left. She improvises a white fur draping out of cotton from the fields (“Southern ermine,” quips the intertitle). This costuming symbolizes not only her bravery but also the devastated economic condition of the South, which has nothing left except its honor.
Contrary to what one might expect from a pro-Southern telling of the Civil War, The Birth of a Nation portrays Lincoln with respect, associating him with near-divine goodness and gravity. The film’s characters treat Lincoln almost as a Christ figure. Mrs. Cameron, for example, appeals to him to save her son’s life, as a supplicant would appeal to Jesus for healing in the Bible. Congressional representatives who meet with Lincoln always agree with him and treat him with reverence, with Austin Stoneman as the lone exception. Lincoln’s life becomes a symbol of hope for a peaceful reunification process. In the five days between Lee’s surrender to Grant and Lincoln’s assassination, the South begins to rebuild itself with hope and dignity. Southerners react to his assassination as if it were a crucifixion, and as soon as Lincoln dies, criminals from the North immediately overrun the South.
The way each character treats animals corresponds to a certain quality in his or her personality. While Silas Lynch throttles a dog by the throat and tosses it aside, Elsie and Ben caress a white dove, the greatest symbol of purity and inner peace. Flora plays with a squirrel in the forest, a symbol of her communion with the lush natural landscape of the South. When the film introduces Dr. Cameron, he tickles a pair of puppies lying by his feet, which suggests his paternal gentility. The puppies also serve a further symbolic purpose: one is white and one is black. A character off-screen drops a kitten into the mix and stirs up the placidity of the scene, suggesting that everything was fine between white and black until outsiders dropped in from the North.