The Birth of a Nation (2016)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on October 12, 2016 @

The Birth of a Nation is a harrowing, human testament.

I almost didn't see it.

A lot of potential viewers skipped it; it flopped at the box office on opening weekend.

I finally attended an afternoon showing. Only two other people came to that showing. They were an old African-American woman and an old Caucasian man.

It probably was a good thing that I saw the film in an empty theater.

An acquaintance of mine, who is a reviewer, wrote at the press screening open to the public, "there was a palpable sense of bloodthirstiness in the audience."

That's one of the reasons I often try to avoid audiences. I don't want to be a Pauline Kael, and review them.

There is a lot standing in the way of The Birth of a Nation. I initially thought it would be just another movie dominated by mean-spirited cruelty and brutality.

I'm not a fan of movies that are an ordeal. Last year I suffered through the agony of The Revenant. I don't think I was ready for another experience of brutal inhumanity.

Many viewers go to the movies as an escape from "real life." I'm not one of them. I became a teacher - not a lawyer - because I wanted to seek the truth. For me, that was the bottom line. Literature and film sometimes provide that access. But, at times, truth - as in The Birth of a Nation - is steeped in ugliness. The Birth of a Nation is a visceral vision of pain, but it's laced with humanity.

Many older viewers don't go to movie theaters anymore. Duke Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Audrey Hepburn, and Doris Day don't romp anymore. And Sidney Poitier hasn't made a movie in years.

It's no wonder that The Birth of a Nation is underachieving at the box office. Its appeal is nil to many viewers. They don't want to go from a fractious world outside to a fractious world in the theater.

Another obstacle The Birth of a Nation faces is the backlash against Nate Parker, its director, screenwriter, and producer.

[I'm not sure how relevant this is, but in 1999, Nate Parker was accused of raping a white girl at Penn State University. He was acquitted, but she committed suicide 12 years later. Of course, present day media retries the case, and he is stigmatized by others, who won't see his film.]

I didn't know about Parker's past when I saw the film, but I doubt whether it would have influenced my viewing of the film.

In some ways, The Birth of a Nation is a marvel - relevant and well-crafted. It's an independent film that reportedly was filmed in 27 days. It shouldn't work as well as it does.

The Birth of a Nation is based on the life of an actual person Nat Turner, from boyhood to ultimately leading a 2-day slave rebellion in Southampton, Virginia in 1831, which ended in a murderous rampage.

It's a provocative subject. William Styron wrote a novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1969), which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but caused severe controversy about Styron's authenticity and attitude.

The best quality of The Birth of a Nation is the performance of Nate Parker as Nat Turner. As an actor, Parker is reminiscent of a younger Denzel Washington. He has Denzel's clear, cool stare. His grace. His dignity. His steady, quiet intensity. His intelligence.

The film is better made than one might expect from a first-time director/screenwriter. Parker wisely has assembled a crew of veteran craftsmen.

Composer Henry Jackson brings a welcome softness with strings and piano to the quiet scenes between the jolting scenes.

Veteran cinematographer Elliot Davies creates some memorable images - a vast field of white cotton, a glorious sunrise as a character drinks alcohol while sitting against a tree.

Veteran editor Steven Rosenblum also edited Braveheart (1995), which has a lot in common with The Birth of a Nation.

Parker's screenplay avoids making his characters into caricatures. They are basic, but he keeps them human in their evil.

One of the criticisms of The Birth of a Nation that I most disagree with is that the film doesn't have enough good racists.

Where are the good Nazis?

Where are Uncle Tom and Uncle Remus?

Sam Turner (an effective Armie Hammer), owner of the plantation on which Nat works, is not a one-dimensional character. He's caring to a point, but he's dedicated to saving his family's plantation. His decency is overwhelmed by pragmatic concerns. Welcome to the American Success Story.

Elizabeth Turner, Sam's mother (Penelope Ann Miller), is decent and sensitive, although limited by her culture. She teaches Nat, as a young boy, to read the Bible.

Aja Naomi King is appealing as Cherry, Nat's ill-fated wife.

Despite the original, classic The Birth of a Nation (1915), being masterly filmmaking by D.W. Griffith, many modern viewers reject it because of its racism.

The present The Birth of a Nation pulls us into a recognition of oppression and cruelty.

It's ironic that in the present version, people may identify with the victims, and then have to cope with their becoming murderous slaves in revolt.

Audiences once cheered as Ku Klux Klan members rode to the rescue like the cavalry.

Whom do we cheer today?

© 2000-2023 Tony Macklin