One of first-time director Nate Parker’s smartest decisions was hiring editor Steven Rosenblum to cut “The Birth of a Nation.”
Veteran Rosenblum had already learned his way around rebellion, from Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” to Ed Zwick’s “Glory.” In fact, both Zwick (who served as exec producer) and Gibson offered Parker valuable storytelling advice: Zwick recommended alternating narrative rhythm, while Gibson gave pointers on action, especially the bloody uprising at the Virginia armory.
“There’s such power to ‘Birth of a Nation’ and the story of Nat Turner’s [slave revolt of 1831],” Rosenblum told IndieWire.” “I guess this is my freedom trilogy, and it goes back to ‘Spartacus,’ which had the biggest impression on me as a 12-year-old. Mel and I both joked on ‘Braveheart’ that we were making ‘Spartacus.’
“Nate didn’t have a lot of time or money, but I’ve always been attracted to movies that are bittersweet. And this is right up my alley. You think: How could you be rooting for a man who leads a rebellion that slaughters 60 people? And yet by the end of ‘Birth of a Nation,’ it’s certainly not that you’re rooting, but you understand it all. There are so many shades of gray and I love that it makes you think that way… great emotional experiences that are often cathartic.”
Parker only had about 27 days to shoot and often didn’t even have time to turn the camera around and cover his scenes in the opposite direction. It wasn’t until the distribution deal with Fox that he could afford second unit or surgical pickups to expand the scope, such as vistas of cotton fields.
“A specific challenge was not making it appear that there wasn’t enough footage,” said Rosenblum. “So if you’re looking at a long ‘oner’ with no coverage and it’s too long, there’s always a way and problem solving is what we do.”
But Parker was a quick study and let Rosenblum make his first pass without any notes before sitting down together to hone the narrative. The otherworldly and spiritual opening in Africa involving Turner as a child took some attention, according to the editor. It establishes him as a prophet with strange visions.
“The visual metaphor and the use of sound were incredibly important to Nate,” Rosenblum said. “Tribal women drumming, and a kid brought into an eerie forest to do what we don’t even know—so the sound had to be very native, very African. I always cut with music and editing to me is music. And I happened upon Rachel Portman’s score for ‘Beloved,’ which was a goldmine of stuff that I could draw from.
“So I used this strange sounding African type music. And when Nate heard it, he said, ‘that’s perfect.’ And later down the line when [composer] Henry Jackman came on board, he did his interpretation of that. So the whole thing of the mysticism, the boy being chosen because he had the three strange marks on his chest, he was chosen by God, gives the movie a sense of inevitability.”
The first scene that Rosenblum edited was the most brutal: Turner witnessing a shackled slave’s teeth being hammered out when he refuses to eat as an act of rebellion. It’s the catalyst that shakes Turner to his core. “The sound of the tapping become the percussive focal point,” he said. “The rhythm of the tapping on the teeth is what made it what it was. Again, that’s just music.”
Which is mainly why there was no need to show the whipping of Turner in the same graphic detail as the one in the Oscar-winning “Twelve Years a Slave.” “That was mostly for budgetary reasons, but from a different point of view,” he said. “Once you’ve done something like the tooth scene, you don’t ever have to do it again in the course of a movie. It was the same with ‘Glory,’ which starts with a head getting blown off by a cannonball at the Battle of Antietam.”
Rosenblum also had praise for Parker as an actor. He went in and out of character easily while directing, but Rosenblum had to remind him occasionally not to shortchange his performance at the expense of helping the other actors. (It was the same with Gibson.) And although both actor-directors have been under dark clouds of personal controversy, all that matters creatively to Rosenblum is the connection between their two movies.
Parker even gave the editor the freedom to improvise a clever solution to the climactic battle. “It was shot in a couple of days and not enough peripheral action to help offset what Nat is doing,” Rosenblum said. “Once inside the munitions area, he shot two or three set ups of A/B cameras. And it occurred to me that by judiciously using smoke wafting in and out, I could jump cut anything I wanted.”
It’s problem solving at its best.