The Birth of a Nation came and went last year. Following its breakout at the Sundance Film Festival, the proceeding months were not kind to writer/director/producer/star Nate Parker, based on a muddy history that was brought back into the news. Still, there is a righteous part of me that sees a film recounting a historical event and tying into relevant topics still affecting America today, as the nation continues to court more and more woke individuals. The other part concerns my role as one who critiques film and sees a lot of ambition being outdone, at times, by narrative and budgetary restraints, let alone other elements that are hard to look past. It is unfortunate that a film providing such a showcase for strong performances and evocative imagery was not more successful, but despite some issues, the film does plenty to unpack a lot of clear anger in how history and beyond has been a struggle for many. Now the films is on Blu-ray for those with curiosity to check out.
Nate Parker writes, directs, produces and stars in this film as Nat Turner, the enslaved preacher who turned into a rebellion leader for a brief period in 1830s Virginia. The film focuses less on the slave rebellion itself and more on what events led up to a violent 48-hour period that is talked about in different lights, depending on what high school you attended. Opening on Nat as a child, we quickly learn the boy can read, which leads him to studying the Bible. As an adult, Nat eventually becomes a preacher to fellow slaves and is soon leant out by his master, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), in exchange for profit.
This middle section is easily the film at its most effective and daring. Parker has a certain command on screen that makes his various sermons fulfil their requirements. While not seen in full, we get a good sense of what it takes for a man to overcome a circumstance of being hired to preach in an effort to depart good words on the horribly treated slaves he is being brought to speak with. It is here we see the seeds of rebellion planted, as Turner’s clever turns of phrase appease the masters, while having double meanings for his newly acquired congregation. It also speaks to the power of religion, which most certainly prompted the choices in Turner’s life.
These sequences also lead to the intentionally hard-to-watch moments that portray just how horrible the conditions in the Antebellum South were. As Samuel and Nat travel to various plantations, The Birth of a Nation puts plenty of emphasis on the awfulness of this time. In all of this, Samuel, who is initially seen as fairly respectful towards his slaves, becomes more and more corrupted by his needs and becomes just another horrible white man using black humans no differently than inanimate objects. To his credit, Hammer is great in the role, as Parker clearly plays with the image of this seemingly privileged white actor to show a character shrouded by difficulties.
Elsewhere, the film has to work through other issues. From the start, it seems clear that Parker is examining a lot of ideas that he’s doing his best at to capture as a filmmaker making his feature length directorial debut. The first third of the film makes some clear proclamations, but also feels hastily edited and unsure of what’s most necessary. A lot of the dialogue throughout feels overwrought (though a film like this has to somewhat be that way, I suppose) and the structure of the story nails a lot of clichéd elements that set the film in more of a familiar mold than expected.
Most notably, the film invents a moment involving the assault of Turner’s wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) and utilizes this as one of the final straws to move Nat towards rebellion. It’s an odd turn when you consider slavery already being one of the worst things, but the film uses this moment and seems bent on having a personification of evil by various individuals (most notably Jackie Earle Haley’s role as a sinister slave patrol captain). No doubt this ideally means the climactic battle can feel more personal because of the familiar faces being taken down. Still, to what extent does that allow the film to be more effective?
For a film bent on opening some eyes, it is a shame that both the construction of the narrative and the small budget only allows the slave rebellion to display so much carnage. Not that a Tarantino level of violence is necessary, but the climactic battle is a far cry from anything seen in Django Unchained, let alone Braveheart, to which this film owes plenty of credit to. That is also to say nothing of the restraint shown in seeing the extent of the violence during this 48-hour period (not just the burly white men were killed).
Still, to what point do some of these things matter, when considering what else the film is putting out there? Aside from some character-related moments, The Birth of a Nation is not exhibiting subtle filmmaking. From the use of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to the shot of a young white girl leading along a young black girl by way of a rope around her neck, there is plenty here to provoke a response and easily be looked at through a lens of those finding modern times to be similarly difficult.
Additionally, putting aside any other thoughts regarding Parker outside of this film, I can admire a black man trying to appropriate and re-purpose the title “The Birth of a Nation”. If the film were stronger, this cause would be an even greater, but the awfulness that came with the celebrated D. W. Griffith film (from a cinematic standpoint) can now be counter-balanced by something justly confrontational and tied to where America is today.
To what extent this film will have an effect I do not know. I walked out of 12 Years a Slave thinking I just saw a future Best Picture winner (I was right). That feeling was not here with The Birth of a Nation. It is held back by narrative convention and a general lack of polish that could have allowed the film to come off even stronger. That being said, the film does function as a cinematic mission statement of sorts and one that can be viewed as provocative on its own, but easily when placed against current events. It’s another film about slavery, yes, but as much as some want to move on, filmmakers such as Parker put something like this out because of how much we may not actually have.
Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
Clarity/Detail: For this transfer some well-handled settings are on display quite often and they register clearly on Blu-ray, as do the other aspects of this film, which involve a display of harsh times, along with period details that better emphasize the times.
Depth: There are some key sequences in this film that involve a level of perspective to better take in the effectiveness of the harsher scenes. The staging allows for the film to open up in ways that play into how solid the level of depth is on this Blu-ray, as you watch scenes prominently featuring Turner in the foreground, for example, while other characters can be observed doing other actions in the background.
Black Levels: Many scenes in this film that take place during the night tend to have a haunting quality to them, given the characters involved in them. With that said, the black levels on this disc really stand out as fantastic, with no flawed aspects to be scene.
Color Reproduction: The film’s Blu-ray does a great job at bringing out the various colors to be found in this setting, with the sunlit color palette looking terrific in the way it contrasts with the various characters present.
Flesh Tones: Speaking of which, the textures seen on the characters in this film are, again, properly represented to the point of making the intense nature of the proceedings more visceral.
Noise/Artifacts: Nothing to be found that truly affected my viewing experience.
Audio Format(s): English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, English Descriptive Audio 5.1, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, French DTS 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, French
Dynamics: This film moves around between intensely quiet moments and ones that utilize a broader range of sound, between the score, the dialogue, the sound effects, and other aspects. It is all very well presented on this Blu-ray disc.
Low Frequency Extension: Some key scenes are scored with moments that really help in building the intensity. While not as bombastic and bass-heavy as big blockbusters, those moments and other sections of this film are effective in this regard.
Surround Sound Presentation: A great feel can be found in the way The Birth of a Nation effectively balances the distribution of sound heard in one’s surround system. It is a fine audio track for sure and the presentation is a good example of a non-action or genre film in general for providing a solid reason for any film to be experienced on Blu-ray.
Dialogue Reproduction: Dialogue is crisp and clear, whether characters are speaking softly or with a louder passion.
The Birth of a Nation features quite a few extras, which goes a long way to really round out this package in both how it dissects the actual rebellion and the making of the film. It additionally provides Parker a chance to really speak about things not related to him outside of the film. This doesn’t take away from what he’s associated with, but given how the film’s message has its own importance, it nice to see these features speak to the importance of the story being told.
- Rise Up: The Legacy of Nat Turner Documentary (HD, 47:13) – This Nat-Geo doc provides some god insight into the real Nat Turner. Co-star Roger Gueveur Smith hosts this special and provides enough of an affected performance to somewhat humorously get us through this story.
- Feature Commentary by Director Nate Parker – Interesting as far as hearing all that went into putting this film together.
- Deleted Scenes with Optional Director Commentary (HD, 3:26)
- The Birth of a Nation: The making of a Movement (HD, 41:46) – An in-depth look at the making of the film.
- #AmeriCAN (Short Film) with Optional Director Commentary (HD, 18:22) – A solid short film dealing with modern-day discrimination in America.
- “Free God” Spoken Word (HD, 6:28) – A spoken word poem/commercial for Birth of a Nation.
- Celebration of Independent Voices – Nate Parker (HD, 4:38) – A featured focused on Parker making it as an indie filmmaker.
- Shooting Script (HD)
- Gallery (HD)
- DVD Copy of the Film
- UltraViolet Copy of the Film
It will be interesting to see whether or not The Birth of a Nation ever catches on more with people in the years to come. Given how the film went from a surefire Oscar contender to a film that barely registered by the time Fall came around, some separation from various events may be needed to see if any new regard may suddenly emerge. I do think there are strong elements here and the Blu-ray does a great job of presenting it well and delivering further insight, thanks to all the extras packaged in as well. Whether or not one chooses to seek out the film, be aware of what the film is going after in a way that ideally speaks to larger ideas, as opposed to some singular personas.