HTS Moderator , Reviewer
Title: The Birth of a Nation
HTS Overall Score:85
I’m actually kind of sad that “The Birth of a Nation” got as much hype as it did from the Sundance Film Festival. The hype machine revved up Nate Parker’s directorial debut as the next “Amistad” or “12 Years a Slave” to the point that we were all salivating for it to come out. I really REALLY was looking forward to this, but after viewing I have to come to the conclusion that much of the hype was just that, hype. Is it a good movie? Most certainly yes, but the hype machine had given us such grandiose expectations that when it landed in theaters the reactions were very mixed. I’m not sure whether some of it was from studio interference and the resurgence of the old rape scandal from Parker’s college days, but the Oscar slated film seemed really disappointing. I had to re watch the film on home video for the second time WITHOUT my hype glasses on to actually get more comfortable with the film.
Again, I’m not sure where things went wrong, or why the Sundance Film Festival reviews were so overwhelming positive, but “The Birth of a Nation” definitely has some growing pains for Nate Parker. Years in the making, it has young actor Nate Parker making his first writing and directorial debut. A film that was co-written by him and his college roommate, Jean Celestin. It had all the earmarks of an epic film and was crowdfunded and personally funded by the pair and a host of other independent sources until Fox bought the film for $17.5 million and polished it up for an Oscar bait movie. Now, part of the problem could have been Fox retooling the movie a bit to have a happy Hollywood ending, or the chummier bits of the movie (who knows, most of what is known at this point is just hearsay and rumor), but a good portion of the lackluster response stemmed from the rape scandal that resurfaced just before the movie was being finalized. Back in Nate’s college days in the early 2000 era he and his roommate were accused of rape. Nate was found not guilty (it was a very vague and hard to prove case, so no one really knows WHO is really innocent, but Nate and Jean both attest to their innocence to this day), but Jean Celestin was convicted. Just before the film came to theaters it was let known to the press that the young girl that was the plaintiff in this scandal had actually killed herself in 2012 and the bad press rained down on the young director with a vengeance.
Now, scandal or no scandal. The thing that we’re most interested in here is how good the end product is. Well, it has some good points and bad points, but overall the good points outweigh the bad. The tale focuses on real life slave Nat Turner (Nate Parker). A young boy who is sheltered from the darker aspects of slavery at a young age. Nat is extremely intelligent and after being caught reading by his master’s wife, Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Turner), is sent to live in the big house with the family and educated. Nat grasps onto the gospel at a young age and takes to preaching in his early 20s. While this doesn’t seem like something white folks would really want, Nat is passed around from slave owner to slave owner as a hired hand to preach obedience and thankfulness for what one has to the plantation slaves as a way to increase passivity and compliance.
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=88514[/img]It doesn’t take long for Nat’s little sheltered bubble to burst. Going from different plantation to plantation gives him a new perspective on what the plight of his brethren really is and his convictions begin to alter. No longer is he willing to accept his lot in life and the fury at what is done to his people builds within his heart until he can stand it no more. After his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) is raped by a local slave hunter (played by Jackie Earle Hayley) and a myriad of other atrocities heaped upon the head of his people Nat snaps and forms one of the very first slave uprisings in the south. Now, we all know that there was no upheaval in the South that freed the slaves this early, so you can already guess what happens next. The 48-hour rebellion is quenched with blood and fire, but not before Nat and his band of renegade slaves slaughter over 60 men and women slave owners. An event that was thought to be fairly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but is later realized to be one of the first sparks that falls upon the giant powder keg that was slavery in the South.
“The Birth of a Nation” is definitely a flawed epic. You can tell that Nate Parker really put his heart and soul into this effort, and his acting is the highlight of the movie. Wildly charismatic and equally charming, Nat Turner is a vivid and engaging hero. Every time Parker is on screen it’s electrifying, and his enthusiasm and passion for the role is easily palpable to the viewer. The nuts and bolts of the film are solid, and everything that unfolds, unfolds with gruesome and horrific accuracy. The plight of the slaves and the torture they undergo is well documented and is written well. The only thing is that it just can’t seem to set itself apart from so many other films in the same genre. As I said, the nuts and bolts are there, and the move was definitely written to elicit certain emotions, but those emotions just don’t seem to realize themselves. The acting is exceptional, but the characters (besides Nat) don’t really leap off the screen and resonate with the viewer (at least this viewer). At first I thought I was just jaded and couldn’t connect, but other reviews and opinions of people I personally trust in the industry seem to mirror my findings. Everything was there. Every bit of the recipe was top tier stuff, but for some reason the baking of said “cake” just didn’t churn out a tasty end product.
One of the biggest downers of the film in relation to Nate Parker and his portrayal of the heroic real life Nat Turner was his faith. Nat was an unquestionable Christian man with a documented passion for his lord. However, it doesn’t come out in the screenplay at all that way. You see Nat gain his faith at an early age, but then nothing is ever developed from it. There is no struggle of faith. No moments where you truly see it become his own. Just the verbal sermons that he preaches and his actions of vengeance later in the film. I honestly can’t tell whether the Nat Turner in the film actually believed what he preached, or whether he enjoyed the power and status and luxury that being an educated preacher in a slave’s world gave him. The original story has Nate coming to turn himself in over his actions, and the torture his soul goes through in justifying what he thought he had to do in order to free his brothers. In the movie he walks in and turns himself in, but there is no real reason given, and you’re left scratching your head WHY unless you know what actually happened back then to the real life Nat.
Rated R for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=88522[/img]“The Birth of a Nation” comes to Blu-ray with a very healthy looking 1080p encode in the 2.39:1 scope aspect ratio. The period piece film has several different color gradings depending on time and location, and switches between a very clean and natural looking image with some teal highlights to a slate blue look at times (especially during the final confrontation after the uprising has begun). Fine detail is exceptional throughout, and the sense of depth and layering of the 2D image is quite impressive. There are whole scenes where Armie Hammer and Nate Parker are standing in the foreground while other people go about their duties in the far background and the level of focus allows both parties in different layers to be seen with equal focus. Black levels are strong and show distinct shadow detail despite being almost pitch black. There’s a flicker of the obligatory banding coming into play here and there, but nothing that will shock the viewer or pull them out of the viewing experience. Overall a very very well done image indeed.
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=88530[/img]Fox many times has a lossless DTS-HD MA track for the Blu-ray and an object oriented next gen Atmos or DTS:X track on the 4K disc, but this time the same 5.1 DTS-HD MA lossless audio track is available on both formats. While there is no Atmos track, the 5.1 mix is still a great audio experience, easily on par with the stellar video encode. “The Birth of a Nation” switches between moments of quiet dialog and contemplation, to a more special and enveloping action throughout the film. In the quieter moments we still have quite a bit of nuanced surround activity with birds chirping in the trees, footsteps crunching on leaves in the background and the whinnying of horses who are chomping at their bits. The more action oriented scenes (especially the end 30 minutes) are much more robust and exhilarating, with gunshots reverberating throughout the channels and a healthy amount of LFE to balance out the track. Dialog is cleanly replicated in the center channel, and the dynamic range is wide, while still being balanced with the rest of the movie. Another excellent encode from Fox.
• Rise Up: The Legacy of Nat Turner Documentary
• Feature Commentary by Director Nate Parker
• Deleted Scenes with Optional Director Commentary* (also available in 4K Blu-ray)
• The Birth of a Nation: The Making of a Movement*
• #AmeriCAN (Short Film) with Optional Director Commentary*
• "Free God" Spoken Word*
• Celebration of Independent Voices – Nate Parker*
• Shooting Script*
“The Birth of a Nation” is definitely a flawed movie, but it is still a rather solid look back into a dark era of American civilization. A well-acted and solidly directed film, it just falls prey to too many Hollywood clichés and some studio interference that could have been avoided for a more seasoned director. Still, Nate Parker did an excellent job as his first entry into the world of directing, and his always excellent acting stands out as the highlight of the film. Fox has given us an exemplary Blu-ray package with great audio, video and even some REALLY nice extras to chew through here (something which is becoming increasingly rare). While it’s not a perfect film, I had a good time watching it (especially the second time around after I got over the disappointment of my over inflated expectations) and the Blu-ray is top notch. Worth a solid watch.
Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller
Directed by: Nate Parker
Written by: Nate Parker, Jean McGianni Celestin
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1 AVC
Audio: English: DTS-HD MA 5.1, French DTS 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1
Runtime: 119 Minutes
Blu-ray Release Date: January 10th, 2017
Buy The Birth of a Nation On 4K Blu-ray at Amazon
Buy The Birth of a Nation On Blu-ray at Amazon
Recommendation: Solid Watch
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