copyright © Jedo Dre 2011

The Birth of a Nation is about the life and interaction between two families, one from the Confederate South and one from the Union North, before during and after the US Civil War. The story is quite strong. It has a clear structure and you get to know and perhaps even care about the main characters. It has its ups and downs, with a really intense action scene towards the end of the film. It is pretty good.

However the largest problem is with the storyline. Look, it is nice that this movie stands for something, even if that something is resistance to abolitionism. Nowadays, politically castrated movies try to appeal to everyone and their messages are soft if and thin. You may disagree with the themes in the Birth of a Nation, but at least it has guts. Unfortunately, it has a bit too much guts, and its guts do not mix well with what this movie tries to be.

The movie states in multiple title cards that it is presenting a historical account of events and indeed does so sometimes, even citing historical sources, but at the same time it leans so heavily to the pro-confederate and racist side that it undermines itself. Especially in the 2nd part of the film you can imagine the hatred seep from the person who wrote the screenplay. Did you know that during the reconstruction era in the South the inferior blacks just completely degraded the poor poor whites, depriving them of their rights. Gosh, now I know.

If you want to make an exciting movie with clear heroes and villains, as is the case with this movie, stop inserting political commentary and claims to historical accuracy.

The acting is quite good. There were a few surprising reactions (house burning down and one of the distraught residents suddenly smiles) but overall quite good. Of course, since it is a silent film, the acting has to be exaggerated to compensate for the lack of talking, but it can be surprisingly subtle in places.

One of the controversial aspects of the film are all the actors in black-face makeup. It is however not the racist aspect of it that troubles this reviewer, but the distraction and confusion it causes as well as the unfortunate conclusions that could be drawn. It is simply distracting to see white actors play brown people, and because the movie is relatively dark and only has one colour, it can be hard sometimes to discern who is supposed to have dark skin until the movie tells you. This is especially true of the main mulatto villain who, at most, looks like he has a light tan. A few times the makers only bothered to paint the head of the white actor and left the rest of the body as is.

The film does on occasion show black actors in the background, so why could the creator not find some more? Today, Hollywood apparently has no trouble finding Arabic characters to play terrorists in pro-Western action movies, where they get killed by their hundreds, so why did this movie have trouble finding black actors? There are three most obvious possibilities: the makers were too lazy to find more black talent, too racist to put black people even in minor roles, in which case they chose their pride over film quality, or too afraid that the audiences would not accept so many blacks in the movie. So which is it, laziness, arrogance or cowardice? None of the three makes a good artist.

As this is a silent film, it uses title cards to clarify the events and it was pleasant to see that written dialogue was used very sparingly. Usually, in silent films, you get a shot of a person talking and then a title card states what the character is saying, but in this movie you mostly get a brief description of the scene that is about to follow and from then on you are on your own. So credit is due to the movie for being able to make the story so clear with just these short descriptions.

Since this is a silent film, the music plays a big role. This film had its orchestral music custom made for it and it is some of the better neoclassical chamber music. Clearly, there are some existing melodies used this film, but they are woven together with original music to create one score that makes sense as a whole. The violins take a dramatic lead role and engrave themselves into your brain, remaining there even after the film is over.

Birth of a Nation features good cinematography for the time. For one, the film is not purely black and white. It is monochrome, but the base color changes depending on the mood and location. Also, there are some interesting special effects used like burning cutouts of building shapes superimposed onto the film with running people, in order to imitate a burning town. It actually looks better than some of the modern CGI effects. The one things that this movie overuses is smoke. It covers up so much that you cannot tell what is going on, which is possible what the creator was going for in order to simulate chaos. Speaking of chaos, there are also some impressive large battles involving what must be at least a hundred people.

In short, Birth of a Nation has a number of pretty good qualities. It has a clear story, good structure, good actors, some impressive large scale scenes and special effects. However, its cultural aspect causes its weaknesses, not because of the racist material, but because of how the movie handles itself.

The Birth of a Nation