The Birth of a Nation 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Review
Tackling a subject depicting a horrific time in history is never an easy feat. Reviewing the film has its challenges as well. The trick is to not let the subject matter, no matter how important it might be, completely overtake the idea of masterful story telling. For every thought-provoking and powerful SCHINDLER’S LIST or 12 YEAR’S A SLAVE, there’s also a rather inaccurate FREE STATE OF JONES. Thankfully, THE BIRTH OF A NATION is much better than the latter but not quite to the impactful level as the former two.
THE BIRTH OF A NATION follows Nat Turner (Nate Parker) who is a slave taught to read as a child and given the only book a person of color is allowed to own – the Bible. As a preacher to fellow slaves, other slaveholders desire to purchase Nat’s services from his owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer). The intent is to keep their slaves in order, encouraging them to obey their earthly masters. Nat’s exposure to the malicious pain and suffering toward other slaves, including himself, sets in motion a change in himself before orchestrating an uprising in the hopes of leading his people to freedom.
THE BIRTH OF A NATION’s exploration of slave owners exploiting the Bible for their personal gain to continue their vicious, oppressive treatment of blacks like livestock is excruciating. Nat’s internal struggle in knowing and believing the Word of God and being dictated on how to use is the film’s highlight and an aspect I haven’t seen quite like this on screen. While there are a few emotionally charged, visually strong artistic moments, the film mostly lacks originality compared to what other great films have captured before it. It never quite reaches the heights of its recent predecessors, to a lesser extent, mixing the powerfully moving and captivating struggle from 12 YEAR’S A SLAVE with the understandably blood thirsty revenge of DJANGO UNCHAINED. The revolt relies on familiar Hollywood tropes – dramatically lined up and charging the enemy, meeting the specific villain in the center of battle, and struggling with the out of reach weapon to name a few.
Director, writer, and star Nate Parker purposely named THE BIRTH OF A NATION after D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist, Ku Klux Klan propaganda film in order to reclaim the title and re-purpose it as a tool to challenge racism in America. While that film is still hailed for its technical ingenuity at the time, it is shockingly and absurdly racist, encouraging white supremacy. I appreciate Parker’s intentions to create change.
After winning the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance Film Festival, THE BIRTH OF A NATION has had all the right buzz making it an early Oscar favorite before most people had even seen it. After last year’s Oscar controversy over the the fact that no one of color was nominated in the actor categories (#OscarsSoWhite), I figured this film, good or bad, would be the one to take home most of the awards as a symbol from the Academy trying to right their perceived wrong. Since then, information about a reported rape accusation that Parker and his writing partner Jean McGianni Celestin were acquitted from in 1999 and the alleged victim’s recent tragic suicide surfaced. With all this hype and controversy surrounding the film, it’s tough to separate and somewhat trivial to simply ask if this is a great film or not.
THE BIRTH OF A NATION is a meaningful and timely piece of cinema, reflecting current race issues that are unfortunately still going on today. The thematic issues dealing with faith and the Bible are the films strongest points, while its graphic violence and offscreen rape scenes might affect some viewers more than others. The film is different than what I was expecting in that it was similar to what I’ve seen before. Outside of being emotionally saddened and disgusted at this time in American history, THE BIRTH OF A NATION doesn’t quite do enough to propel itself as an elite film, but it is still a relevant one that has powerful moments.
4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY REVIEW
Video: From the official stills alone, you can tell this is a dark film where colors are in short supply. I actually think these types of film are helped more by the 4K format since the added color depth from HDR can add a lot to a dark scene. THE BIRTH OF A NATION already had a great looking Blu-ray, but the 4K takes it up a notch, adding details to just about everything. I noticed this most in the details in the textures on the clothing, especially during any scene with a little sunlight, but you can tell the difference in just about every scene.
Audio: We get the same DTS track from the Blu-ray.
This title was reviewed using a Samsung UBD-K8500 with a Sony XBR75X850C TV.
The 4K UHD does not contain any exclusive features, but it does include a Blu-ray of the film, which has the following special features:
Commentary with Nate Parker: Given how much he did to bring THE BIRTH OF A NATION to life, this is obviously a very personal project for Parker and he gives a very insightful, detailed commentary that covers everything you’d want to know about the film.
Deleted Scenes (3:25): You can view these with commentary from Nate Parker, but none of them are long enough to have impacted the film.
Rise Up: The Legacy of Nat Turner (47:10): I always like when we get a “true” special feature to accompany a movie based on true events and this fills that need nicely. We learn about the real events that inspired the film.
The Birth of a Nation: The Making of a Movement (41:45): This is set up like a standard making-of feature, but it’s much better and goes into more detail about how the film came to be.
AmeriCAN (18:30): This is a short film from Nate Parker.
Celebration of Independent Voices – Nate Parker (4:35): Parker gets his own featurette which touches on his resume.
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