THE BIRTH OF A NATION – Henry Jackman
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
In 1915 the pioneering film director D. W. Griffith released The Birth of a Nation, which he had adapted from the novel The Clansman by T. F. Dixon Jr. Looking back on it now, it is clearly one of the most groundbreaking and important films ever made, but at the same time it is one of the most abhorrent too. Despite being a silent film shot in black and white, it broke ground in terms of cinematic artistry; Griffith essentially invented many of the filmmaking tools we take for granted today, including pans and zooms, close-ups, cross-cut editing in order to tell parallel stories simultaneously, and choreographed action sequences. It also featured one of the first ever commissioned film scores, written by composer Joseph Carl Breil. As a technological achievement, the original Birth of a Nation is an absolute masterpiece. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most racist films in the history of cinema. To boil it down to its nuts and bolts, it’s a heroic tale about the Ku Klux Klan, who become righteous freedom fighters in the aftermath of the Civil War, saving the noble white folk in the south from the “insolent niggers” from the north, most of whom were played by white actors in eye-rolling, mugging blackface. Time has not been kind to Griffith’s film, and rightfully so; today most film scholars praise its technological achievements, but utterly denounce its content, although Roger Ebert did write of it: “The Birth of a Nation is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil”.
Director Nate Parker’s new film, also called The Birth of a Nation, is not a remake of Griffith’s film from 100 years ago, but it intentionally steals its title, intending to “reclaim and re-purpose it as a tool to challenge racism in America,” and “to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize society toward healing and sustained systemic change.” The film tells the true life story of Nat Turner, an African American slave in Virginia in the 1830s, who is encouraged to become a preacher by his manipulative owner, but who instead inspires a group of fellow slaves to rise up and rebel against the cruelty, oppression, and racism they experience in their daily lives. The film stars director Parker in the lead role, with support from Armie Hammer, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, and Gabrielle Union, among others, and was an enormous success at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, although that initial enthusiasm has been somewhat tempered by some unsavory reports of sexual assault in director Parker’s past, and it remains to be seen whether this will affect its box office, or its chances at Academy Award nominations in the new year.
The score for The Birth of a Nation is by English composer Henry Jackman, who over the last five years or so has become one of the most prominent voices in mainstream Hollywood film music, through scores like Wreck-It Ralph, X-Men: First Class, Big Hero 6, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Captain America: Civil War. However, anyone who has enjoyed his music for those big Disney animated films and enormous super-hero action adventures will find The Birth of a Nation to be a very different work. In contrast to the bombast of those popular works, this score is restrained, solemn, and respectful of the life and legacy of a man who still inspires millions to this day. The music is fully orchestral, for the most part, but often makes use of just a small handful of lead instruments to make its statements, ranging from cello to piano, flute, and harp. Alongside this, Jackman weaves in a mixed voice choir and solo vocalists, as well as a number of African tribal percussion items which pay respect to the heritage of the men and women who were enslaved in such vast numbers during that terrible time in American history.
There is just one prominent recurring theme in the score, for Nat Turner himself. It first appears in the second cue, “Turner Plantation,” and is an idyllic piece for strings, piano, and guitar; the initial tone is generally quiet, pastoral, with just a hint of sadness, although the texture that opens the cue – a viola de gamba perhaps? – reminds me of the opening moments of Elliot Goldenthal’s score for Interview with the Vampire, and may have something to do with establishing the film’s southern setting. However, subsequent performances of the theme tend to be more noble, speaking to the character of Turner himself, and his fight for freedom and justice. “The Life of Nat Turner,” for example, showcases the theme as a beautiful duet for chorus and flute that slowly emerges into a warm, gently romantic statement for fuller strings, with an especially notable cello part.
Much of the rest of the score, where the theme is not fully present, tends to be quite understated, often presenting just one or two instrumental colors or a specific vocal inflection to carry the emotional weight. Emotionally, the music tends to convey more downbeat feelings of longing, sadness, and regret, but despite this it retains a great deal of harmonic beauty. “A New Chapter” features especially poignant string and harp textures, and “Cherry Anne” has a mournful cello line, a soulful humming chorus, and an especially delicate, crystalline harp solo. Meanwhile, the spiritual aspect of the score is conveyed through the frequent use of voices and choirs, most notably in the haunting “Matrimony,” the lamenting “The Remission of Sin,” the more hopeful “Transfiguration,” and especially “The Reckoning,” where ghostly choral textures, tremolo strings, and a faint church organ give the whole thing a sense of ecclesiastical mysticism.
These are counterbalanced by the African tribal vocal and percussion performances, which to my ears appear to be very authentic. The very first cue, “Prophecy,” showcases softly rattling woodwinds, tribal drums, and gruffly chanting voices, while the subsequent “The Calling” adds a solo flute, breathy, low, and moody, to the palette. The more emphatic “A Call to Arms” features the African vocals singing in dramatic fashion, augmented by anticipatory strings and rumbling timpani, as if the music is inspiring Turner and his rebels to draw strength from their ancestors.
As the score reaches its conclusion, the Nat Turner theme returns to prominence. “Riotous Disposition” begins with the solemn sound of an all-male chorus, but gradually crescendos the theme through the addition of various layers of strings, before emerging into a rhythmic, pulsating African tribal dance, with Nat’s theme heard in counterpoint. “On to Jerusalem” is the score’s longest cue, a major orchestral set piece, which blends all the score’s main instrumental and choral elements into one six-minute cue, and runs the gamut of emotions, initially coming across as solemn, and tragic, but gradually becoming hopeful and defiant. The Civil War-style snare drum raps at times recall James Horner’s score for Glory, while the cue’s finale, which combines several poignant statements of Nat’s theme, and an increased choral presence, with more African percussion and chanting, again counterpointed by the orchestra, is especially great. The soaring brass performance of Nat’s theme towards the end of the cue gives the whole thing a sense of destiny and sacrifice.
The final three cues are “Rite of Passage,” which features an African child’s voice, raw, unpolished, and authentic; “The Legacy of Nat Turner,” which returns for one final performance of Nat’s theme at its most haunting and powerful; and “The Birth of a Nation,” which sees a hopeful-sounding children’s choir singing Nat’s theme in an African dialect bringing the score to a respectful close. Also included on the album is Nina Simone’s gut-wrenching performance of one of her most iconic songs, “Strange Fruit,” which was written in 1939 as a poetic reaction to a lynching, and remains to this day one of the most influential reflections on the horror of racism – so much so that Nate Parker chose this song to feature in one of the trailers advertising his film.
For me, this score represents the best music of Henry Jackman’s career to date. It’s not flashy, it doesn’t have any kick-ass action sequences, it doesn’t have any pulsating themes, and for a great deal of it’s running time it isn’t even especially “fun” music due to the poignant emotional nature of the film it accompanies – and as such I anticipate many fans of his super hero scores will listen to this and wonder what the hell I’m talking about. However, what it demonstrates to me is Jackman’s deep understanding of, and respect for, his subject matter, and his ability to translate these difficult, often ugly concepts into sophisticated music that really works.
The way he incorporates both African tribal music and choral elements into the score – although it’s clearly not a groundbreaking conceptual stretch – nevertheless speaks directly to his main character’s two sources of strength: his cultural heritage, and God. Furthermore, the clarity and precision of the stripped-down instrumental textures also indicates, to me, Jackman’s increased confidence in his own music. With music like this, which is often unadorned, or limited to just one or two instruments, you can’t hide behind walls of orchestration. The melodies and the harmonies have to speak for themselves, and the fact that they can do that here, while also conveying a number of subtly different emotional resonances, is to Jackman’s great credit.
I hope that the controversy surrounding the personal life of the director doesn’t affect the film’s reception, because I feel that this is a score worth hearing, and it would be a great shame if Jackman’s work here was tarnished and overlooked due to things beyond his control. For me, this score represents a real maturation of Henry Jackman the composer; we already knew he could write music for super heroes and animated action films, but now we know he can also turn his hand to powerful, serious dramas, and write powerful, serious music with skill and sincerity.
Buy the Birth of a Nation soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Prophecy (0:58)
- Turner Plantation (1:42)
- The Calling (1:09)
- A New Chapter (1:55)
- Cherry Anne (2:43)
- Matrimony (1:35)
- The Oppressed (1:49)
- The Life of Nat Turner (1:53)
- A New Song (1:38)
- Serving Master (1:25)
- The Remission of Sin (1:05)
- Transfiguration (1:50)
- A Call to Arms (0:49)
- The Reckoning (1:57)
- Riotous Disposition (1:48)
- On to Jerusalem (6:16)
- Strange Fruit (written by Abel Meeropol, performed by Nina Simone) (3:33)
- Rite of Passage (0:52)
- The Legacy of Nat Turner (1:58)
- The Birth of a Nation (2:55)
Running Time: 40 minutes 00 seconds
Atlantic Records (2016)
Music composed by Henry Jackman. Conducted by XXXX. Orchestrations by XXXX . Special vocal performances by Kamille Rudisill. Recorded and mixed by Chris Fogel. Edited by Michael Bauer, Jack Dolman and Daniel Pinder. Album produced by Henry Jackman.