“The Birth of a Nation” fails to live up to title

Harry Westergaard looks at The Birth of a Nation, an underwhelming new film from Director Nate Parker.

Harry Westergaard, Arts Editor, Co-Copy Editor

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.. I went into the film with high expectations and came out of the theater feeling underwhelmed.

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. 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 along lines of “for every line there is for them to use against us, there’s another we can use for our purpose”.

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. 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.
Overall, Birth of a Nation 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 in doing so aims to break the status quo, so that if you google the name both will appear as results. This isn’t a bad goal, 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.