A slightly edited version of this was originally published on West Side Story.
The Birth of a Nation promises many things from the title alone. If you’re a film student or historian, you will know that it is reclaiming the name of a very famous and groundbreaking propaganda film. Despite its racist and sexist portrayal of African-Americans and women, as well as its perception of the Ku Klux Klan as heroes, the film was one of the earliest epics and pioneered innovative storytelling and directing techniques. It’s almost like an embarrassing school picture that you try to forget for movie history. Even if you don’t hold all these expectations, Birth of a Nation is still a title that promises quite a bit. Plus, with all of the current events and the “Black Lives Matter movement, ” protests and police brutality, a film about a slave rebellion could really hit home. I went into the film with high expectations and came out of the theater feeling sort of underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad film by any means, but it was not a groundbreaking film either.
To start with, the film looks gorgeous. Director Nat Parker doesn’t disappoint in terms of visuals. Many of the shots are beautiful to look at. I marvelled at the reflective waters in the baptism scene. The score is also well done, along with the use of traditional slave songs and spirituals. Henry Jackman, known for his quality superhero scores, also does a good job on the instrumentals, which proves to be powerful and helps deliver extra emotion in scenes. I also liked how religion was portrayed. Birth of a Nation showed how religion can inspire great things, and that it isn’t just a medium for mustache twirling men to take away rights. The film shows how it can be both things, depending on how you interpret the text. There’s a great line that goes something like “for every line there is for them to use against us, there’s another we can use for our purpose”.I think this was a well rounded and realistic portrayal.
One of the big flaws is how the film sticks to genre cliches. Young Nat has an interest in reading, so the sympathetic white woman takes him under her wing and gives him reading lessons. This got on my nerves. For a movie that you expect so much from, it falls prey to one of the most common cliches in movies about slavery. White women were not in any way nice to slaves. In many cases, they were some of the worst to slaves as they too were often oppressed. While these women had more rights than slaves, they were still abused and scrutinized by white male husbands. So, these women were frequently the most harsh to slaves as a way to feel superior. Rape being used to incite revenge is another trope that this film falls victim to. In short for all the film promises, it makes the cliches feel even more stale and overused. The Birth of a Nation also moves at an uneven pace. It’s not boring per say;, the story just clunks along oddly.
On the whole, Birth of a Nation is not an awful film. It is directed well enough and has a good score. I think the biggest issue with the film is all that it promises. It calls itself Birth of a Nation, and wants to break the status quo so that whenever you Google the name, both versions come up. This isn’t a bad goal, I find it to be a very admirable one. But it does cook up a lot of expectations that Birth of a Nation just cannot live up to. It also amplifies problems like the film adhering to genre cliches. For a movie that’s trying to do so much with the title, it does little that is groundbreaking in the actual film. Perhaps if more thought was put into the script beyond the history-making impact the title holds, the result would have been greater.