The Birth of a Nation (2016) Review

the_birth_of_a_nation_2016_filmScore: 2.5/5

“Birth of a Nation” is the story of Nat Turner and the slave rebellion he led. It is also the title of a 1915 DW Griffith film.

The Griffith film is incredibly racist, implying that African American men were sexual brutes who wanted nothing more than to ravage white women. But the women of the south are saved by the Ku Klux Klan, which means the country is saved – according to Griffith.

By giving his film the same title, director and star Nate Parker has turned the tables. Now, the white slave owner is the lustful predator and the black woman the victim. The heroes in this “Birth of a Nation” is the band of brothers led by Nat Turner (Parker).

Sometimes a film comes out at just the right time and “Birth of a Nation” was a long time coming. The century after Griffith’s film has been filled with racially charged violence and prejudice with whites being the main perpetrators. Romantics thought that it would have all ended when the country elected its first black president, but those tensions just became more veiled.

The refusal to acknowledge the tension coupled with unrest which resulted from a quick succession of police shootings of unarmed African Americans seem to have led up to this moment in cinema.

But that was only how it was marketed. What I saw was a much different film.

The real Nat Turner – as well as the Nat Turner of American lore – was a man who had visions of God telling him to free the slaves and annihilate the white race. By omitting that characteristic of Turner, what is left is a one dimensional hero figure – Beowulf. Parker’s Nat Turner is actually a divine figure. But he isn’t motivated to free the slave, instead he is motivated to protect women from lustful men, slavery for Parker’s Nat Turner almost becomes an afterthought.

In fact, everything that should have been explored in a film about one of the most controversial moments in American history appeared to be treated as afterthoughts. Never mind the complex relationships between free blacks and slaves, rich whites and poor whites and every other possible combination of those four groups. Never mind the intersectionality of race and class. Never mind the economics of slavery. What is important is Nate Parker – yes, I did that on purpose.

It becomes clear that Parker never wanted to make a movie about Nat Turner, instead he wanted to make a movie that would get Nate Parker more name recognition. It’s infuriating to think that “Birth of Nation” talks such a big game but walks such a small and self-serving walk.

The film that needed to exist should have been a character study within an origin story of the root of racial tension – or one of them at least. We need a film to come out that will help us cope with the ugliness that is racial prejudice so we can finally understand each other. If that’s why you want to see “Birth of a Nation” prepare to be disappointed.

The Classics: The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Birth_of_a_Nation_theatrical_posterScore: 5/5 (Classic)

100 years later, D.W. Griffith’s controversial masterpiece “The Birth of a Nation” still finds a way to harm people.

Last week a mad man driven by hate and prejudice murdered nine people in a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. This has led to a surge of protest against the flag of the former Confederate States of America that flies on the grounds of the capitol in Columbia.

Today, the modern viewer cannot watch “Birth of a Nation” without feeling ill. From the first scene of a slave auction to the notorious battle charge of the Ku Klux Klan, “Birth of a Nation” is fueled by ignorance.

But it must be remembered who made this film, D.W. Griffith was born in Kentucky only 10 years after the American Civil War. He was raised in a world that viewed the conflict as pure Northern aggression, a war on a way of life. By the time the film was released in 1915, baseball was still segregated. Jim Crow reigned supreme in the South while the belief that Anglo-Saxon blood was superior was the norm. With these in mind, it leaves enough room to discuss the craft of the film.

In 1915, “Birth of a Nation” was technologically ahead of its time. The critic James Agee wrote concerning Griffith:

To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art…

In 1915, film was still a poor man’s art form. It had not yet gained the appreciation it has today. Little shorts of men sneezing and traveling to the moon were still the only films being made at the time. Then along came “Birth of a Nation;” a three-hour long epic about the fall of and rise of a people.

It made use of the cut between actions, a device that had not been put to wide use until after. Watch as black soldiers pillage a town while at the same time, the Klan rode on in their white robes and hats to save the day. It created a kind of tension in the scene until the Klansmen finally arrived and saved the day.

It is an understatement to say that the South was ravaged by the Civil War. An entire economy and society that was built on the labor of slaves had to be rebuilt along with the cities that were burned to the ground. It just made some sort of sense that the Klan was a saving grace… almost a hold on an old way of life.

Now comes a question that all film students have asked after viewing it: “Was Griffith racist?” The answer from all professors is always, “Yes, but…” To put it lightly, Griffith was a racist in the modern sense, but when compared to the more radical views of the time, he was mild. It was a shame that he did not understand the hate that came from his movie. In atonement, Griffith made the inferior “Intolerance” which spanned different eras and showed different kinds of intolerance.

Griffith uses the same techniques in “Intolerance” that he used in “Birth of a Nation.” People have put “Intolerance” on lists that included great movies. But I find it troubling that society cannot consider films that reflect evil to be art. What does that say about us as a whole when that is the truth?

Now for a bit of reflection: “Birth of a Nation” was the first film to be viewed in the White House by President Wilson. 100 years after its release, the first black President watched Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” in the same building.