“Set against the antebellum South, The Birth of a Nation follows Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a literate slave and preacher, whose financially strained owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), accepts an offer to use Nat’s preaching to subdue slaves. As he witnesses countless atrocities, against himself and his fellow slaves, Nat orchestrates an uprising in the hopes of leading his people to freedom.”
The Birth of a Nation generated a lot of media hype and attention before its premiere. It was the directorial debut of Nate Parker, who in addition to directing, is also the writer, lead star, and one of the producers. It is hard to separate his name from the movie, which became particularly problematic when Parker faced several controversial legal accusations near the time of the movie’s release. This legal trouble seemed to cast a shadow over the movie itself and is largely believed to be the reason much of the media attention surrounding the movie seemed to quickly disappear. This review will discuss the movie only and will not address Parker’s legal trouble.
It is worth noting that despite sharing the name of D.W. Griffith’s controversial 1915 film, Parker’s movie is not a remake. The name was intentionally chosen to be provocative and call Griffith’s film to mind, but they share little connection past that. The Birth of a Nation (2016) is based on the life of Nat Turner, played by writer/director Nate Parker. It also features Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Colman Domingo, Mark Boone Jr., Aunjanue Ellis, Aja Naomi King, Esther Scott, Roger Guenveur Smith, Dwight Henry, and Gabrielle Union. The movie runs two hours in length.
The main menu features short silent clips from the movie that are given either a red, blue, or gold tint not seen in the actual movie. While viewers hear part of the film’s score, they can choose one of four options displayed across the bottom of the screen. The first option is “Play,” which simply plays the full movie. “Set up” allows viewers to have control over the audio. This movie comes with English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, English Descriptive Audio 5.1, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, and French DTS 5.1 as options. Here, viewers also have the option to include a feature commentary with writer/director Nate Parker. Subtitles are available for both the movie and commentary in English, Spanish, and French. After the audio options, viewers can use “Search” to access specific scenes or bookmarks they may have placed. Finally, viewers can choose “Extras.” These are the film’s special features and will be discussed more in-depth near the end of this review.
The movie begins in the year 1809. We see a young Nat Turner (played by Tony Espinosa) being presented to a counsel. He is told that he is meant for great things. It is a bit unclear if this scene shows something actually happening to the character or if it is merely a vision in young Nat’s mind.
We discover that Nat is a slave to the Turner family. He lives with his mother (Ellis) and grandmother (Scott). Unlike most slaves, Nat can read. One of his owners, Elizabeth Turner (Miller), is impressed and decides to give him lessons to help him develop his ability to read. She gives him a copy of the Bible.
As Nat grows up, he continues to study his Bible. Now played by Nate Parker, Nat preaches on occasion. He is now owned by Elizabeth’s son, Samuel (Hammer). Samuel shows a bit of respect towards his slaves but is driven by his desire to maintain his family’s name, wealth, and importance.
A friend presents the idea to Samuel that he could make money by having Nat work as a traveling preacher. We discover that Nat’s role is more to pacify his fellow slaves than to share his beliefs. One character says, “I don’t really care how good he is, as long as he says what he’s supposed to.” Nat is meant to serve as a peace keeper.
As Nat travels to different places, he sees the conditions that other slaves must endure. He witnesses torture and violence. Parker does a good job of depicting Nat’s unease and discomfort at trying to keep peace in places where peace does not exist. We see tears in his eyes as he preaches.
After a series of events in which Nat’s loved ones are subjected to physical and emotional abuse, he decides that he must lead a rebellion. Using the same verses he has preached, he believes he is being called upon to change the way slaves are treated. What follows is a depiction of one of the deadliest slavery rebellions in American history.
The Birth of a Nation is a strong directorial debut from Nate Parker. He tends to favor long, continuous shots over rapid cuts and editing. Highly emotional scenes often feature only one or two cuts, letting the performances of the actors really shine.
Speaking of performances, Colman Domingo and Gabrielle Union really stand out in this film. Domingo portrays Nat’s best friend Hark. As they see the conditions in which slaves around them must live, Hark is quick to question Nat’s faith; however, Hark’s loyalty to Nat is unquestionable throughout the movie. Union portrays Hark’s wife, Esther. She has very few lines in the movie, yet Union’s performance is still powerful and moving.
Jackie Earle Haley (above) serves as the film’s primary antagonist. His character, Raymond Cobb, causes many of the tragedies around Nat and his family. Despite his character’s importance to the film, Haley is under-used in the movie and his character is given little depth or development. Cobb is little more than a stereotypical white slave owner, but Haley still gives an excellent performance.
This is just one example of the film’s most glaring flaw: lack of character development. The entire movie is so focused on Nat and his journey to lead a rebellion that almost every character around him is given little room to grow. Many characters come across as stereotypes more than thought-out, developed characters.
The movie really only allows character development for its two leads, but even that development is weak. Armie Hammer’s Samuel Turner is too unpredictable. We see him initially being kinder than most slave owners; however, he randomly seems to sway between kindness and harsh outbursts. His relationship with Nat is eventually severed, and by the end of the film, he too is little more than a stereotypical white slave owner. Instead of developing, his character actually regresses and loses most of his depth. This would have been fine with more attention and detail given to his character, but we are instead only treated to occasional shots of him drinking. The audience is left to fill in gaps.
Nat, who should be the easiest character to follow and understand, is likewise missing some crucial development. We see him as a kind and caring man for a majority of the movie. It is clear that he is moved by the pain slaves around him are experiencing. Despite his motivations, the movie too quickly takes Nat from being a kind, peaceful person to a killer who dispatches people – characters the audience has previously met – in their sleep. It seems as though the movie spends too much time showing us the harsh realities of slavery and not enough time showing us why Nat so quickly decided murder was the answer.
In fact, the pacing of the movie in general seems a bit off. We have a two hour movie meant to display Nat’s journey and rebellion; however, the idea to rebel and fight back isn’t even seen until an hour and fifteen minutes have passed. The rebellion itself lasts around ten minutes. The movie seems to slowly build to a rebellion that is quickly finished.
The movie’s two-hour time covers a 22 year period. The makeup department excels at realistically aging the actors so that they appear 22 years older by the end of the film.
Another strong aspect of the movie is its use of color – particularly the colors red and blue. We hardly ever see the color red. The exception to this is when red is used for blood, and when a character bleeds, that is a bold, prominent red. The HDR really enhances this color and makes the blood more demanding of attention. Additionally Nat’s visions often heavily feature a bright blue tint.
Finally, let’s talk about Nat’s visions. Parker’s movie is based on real-life slave and preacher Nat Turner; however, this is a loose and fictionalized adaptation. The movie adds events and characters that did not exist in Nat’s real life to justify some of his actions and choices. Nat is married to a slave named Cherry, and they eventually have a daughter. In his real life, Nat was married to Cherry, but only on paper. He never mentioned her in his writings, and they were not believed to have had any children. Therefore, any scenes in the movie involving the wife and daughter, though moving, are fictionalized.
According to his writings, Nat was driven entirely by his visions, not by tragedies involving his loved ones. Parker downplays Nat’s religious motivations and visions, choosing instead to focus on external influences on Nat’s life. When the character does have a vision in the movie, it is brief and often ambiguous. For these reasons, this is a loose and fictionalized account.
The 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and Digital HD release comes with two discs. Disc 1 features the movie, Parker’s commentary, and several deleted scenes in 4K Ultra HD quality. The Blu-ray edition, as well as all of the film’s special features, are found on Disc 2. This edition also comes with the code that provides access to the digital copy.
4K Ultra HD (2160p) quality only plays on compatible devices. To view the movie in this form, you will need a 4K UHD TV with HDR and an Ultra HD Blu-ray player. High Dynamic Range (HDR) is intended to enhance contrast by making dark colors seem darker and lighter colors seem brighter. This release is in widescreen, 2.40:1 format.
The 4K Ultra HD quality looks spectacular on some wide shots of the sets. We see a few images of cotton fields under a bright blue sky, and the whiteness of the cotton seems to jump off of the screen. Other than these type of shots, however, the extra quality seems under-used. Parker seems to favor close-ups and, in some key scenes, as few edits as possible. His style works well for most of the movie, but doesn’t allow the 4K Ultra HD quality to offer much enhancement. It is worth noting, though, that both the 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray versions are sharper and clearer than the Digital HD release.
The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio works well for most scenes. In just a few places, the instrumental soundtrack is just a bit more prominent than it needs to be, but that is something that most people probably won’t mind. The dialogue is clear and easy to understand.
Both discs offer Nate Parker’s commentary and the movie’s deleted scenes.
- Feature Commentary by Nate Parker – writer/director Parker discusses his directorial debut and offer insights about his inspirations and the making of the movie
- Deleted Scenes – provided with and without Parker’s commentary
- 1. “Go Home” (1:21) – Nat has a conversation with two teenagers in the woods
- 2. “Interrogation” (2:08) – Cherry, Nat’s mother, and Elizabeth Turner are interrogated about the rebellion
Only the Blu-ray edition offers the following special features:
- “AmeriCAN” (18:33) – a short film by Nate Parker that includes an optional commentary
- The Birth of a Nation: The Making of a Movement
- 1. “Birth of a Movie” (15:54) – Nate Parker discusses why this movie needed to be made and what it took to make the movie happen
- 2. “Finding Nat Turner” (16:21) – Parker discusses Nat Turner’s upbringing, religion, and choices in life
- 3. “Rebirth of Our Nation” (9:29) – Parker talks about filming the movie and specific shots he wanted
- “Celebration of Independent Voices” (4:38) – an interview with Nate Parker at Sundance Film Festival
- “Free God” Spoken Word (6:28) – a spoken word piece filmed in black and white that features two speakers delivering lines over a steady drum beat
- Gallery – Behind-the-scenes pictures of the making of the movie
- “Rise Up: The Legacy of Nat Turner” (47:13) – Produced by the National Geographic Channel, this documentary is hosted by cast member Roger Guenveur Smith and looks at the real-life Turner rebellion and its modern influence. It features interviews with historians and snippets from Thomas R. Gray’s book The Confessions of Nat Turner.
- Shooting Script – a series of still images showing part of the script (Side note – I had trouble getting this feature to play correctly)
- Sneak Peak – Previews for the following movies:
- 1. Hidden Figures
- 2. Papa Hemingway in Cuba
- 3. Rules Don’t Apply
- Theatrical Trailers – Previews of The Birth of a Nation
The Birth of a Nation is a strong directorial debut from Nate Parker that loosely tells the story of slave and preacher Nat Turner. While the film is moving and well told for the most part, it is lacking in character development and a bit mistimed in its pacing.