The Birth of a Nation is bound to be a controversial film. Even without the negative history of its lead actor/writer/director Nate Parker, the biographical tale of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion is bound to turn some heads and start some heated conversations. That’s certainly part of its reason for being, but an interesting facet of the film is its title. Why did Parker choose this title? What historical significance does it have, and how does it pertain to the story Parker is telling?
Over a century ago, filmmaker D.W. Griffith acquired the rights to Thomas Dixon Jr.’s The Clansman, a novel which advocated racial segregation and lionized the actions of the Ku Klux Klan. Griffith adapted this story into his epic film, The Birth of a Nation. The film chronicles the lives of two families who fight through the American Civil War and are crucial figures during the Reconstruction era that followed.
Griffith’s film is often cited as one of the most culturally important pieces of cinema in American history. It’s credited as the first film to utilize camera techniques such as close-ups and fade-outs, as well as being the first film to feature an original musical score. The battle scenes were also the most extravagant ever produced at the time.
The film was an immense commercial success and was even one of the first films to ever screen inside the White House. The historical importance of The Birth of a Nation is unavoidable. But, that doesn’t make its subject matter any less appalling.
The depictions of black people in The Birth of a Nation are hideous caricatures at best. Some of the roles are even played by white men in blackface. The movie was seen as an important element in revitalizing the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century, and several acts of violence towards blacks were attributed to the film. The author of the novel himself believed that the Ku Klux Klan had been an integral part of saving the South from “Negro rule.”
The Birth of a Nation caused protests, boycotts, and even riots. The movie was banned in certain parts of the country to avoid any possible inflammation between whites and blacks. Griffith felt this was inexcusable and the theme of his next film, Intolerance, was born out of the discrimination he felt against The Birth of a Nation.
The Birth of a Nation
Fast forward over a hundred years to today. Nate Parker decides to take the same route Griffith did by highlighting a tumultuous moment in America’s history. He chooses the rebellion of Nat Turner, a slave who rallied together with his compatriots and freed multiple plantations with violent revolt. Turner’s story is a brutal but necessary one. When the time comes to choose a title for this story, Parker chooses The Birth of a Nation. It’s a title synonymous with one of the most anti-black films ever made.
The move is a very deliberate middle finger. It reclaims the idea of what moment was important in the foundation of our country. If the original film posited that the Ku Klux Klan were a positive force in creating America, then Parker’s version paints a similar picture from the opposite side of history.
Though the horrible past of its filmmaker will probably dominate the conversation, The Birth of a Nation deserves recognition for its desire to thumb its nose at a racist touchstone of the medium.
See Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation in cinemas on October 7.
Check out more of our early Oscar predictions in our look at the upcoming season of fall movies.