The Birth of a Nation – Henry Jackman

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Critics have continuously been praising Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation”, naming it one of the Academy Award frontrunners next year. The movie tells the true story of an African American slave, Nat Turner, living in Virginia in the 1830s, who inspires a group of fellow slaves to finally raise up against the violence, oppression and bad treating each of them has to face on a regular every-day-basis by their racist owners.

Director Parker also stars in the lead role, and is supported by a cast which is formed by Armie Hammer, Jackie Earle Haley and Gabrielle Union, amongst others. But despite the movie’s huge success at several popular film festivals, it is still to be seen whether the reports of sexual assault in the director’s past will diminish the movie’s chances on winning an Academy Award – I mean, after all, it’s the Academy we’re talking about…

Parker turned to versatile composer Henry Jackman to write the music for his film. Over the past few years, Jackman has managed to step out of Hans Zimmer’s giant shadow, the protégé finally establishing himself in the film music business. Since then, he has become one of the most influential voices in film scoring, at least judging by the movies he’s been scoring, such as “X-Men”, “Captain America”, “Kingsman” and “Wreck-It Ralph” – mostly entries into the animation or action genre. With his scoring assignment on “The Birth of A Nation”, Jackman finally gets the chance to work on another serious drama film, having already scored Paul Greengrass’s “Captain Phillips” a couple of years ago (which received a terrible score btw – Greengrass is a great director, but when it comes to collaborating with a film composer, you better start running away…). However, it marks a step out of Jackman’s usual comfort zone – for example, just like Junkie XL tackling a romantic comedy…now that would be funny. EPIC DRUM ROMANCE!!!

Well, back to Jackman: It is always interesting to see a composer working on a movie you would never have expected him to score. Sometimes, after listening to the score, you can tell that it is pretty obvious why he has not scored anything like that before – but sometimes, you find yourself actually being quite impressed with what the composer came up with, and luckily, Jackman’s score for “The Birth of A Nation” directly falls into that category.

Jackman builds his score around one recurring main theme which is associated with the character Nat Turner himself and returns multiple times later on in the 41-minute score album. It makes its very first appearance in the second track, “Turner Plantation”, where it is presented as a pastoral-sounding theme, strikingly hinting at feelings of sadness and despair. However, over the running time of the whole album, it is then developed into a couple of more noble performances, musically symbolizing the main protagonist’s fight for freedom and his aim to finally end slavery.

Unfortunately, the rest of the score isn’t as impressive as the main theme. In general, the greatest amount of the music is quite understated and low-key, some cues consisting of only a few instrumental colors, but nothing that would immediately grab the listener’s attention. However, cues such as the cello-led “Cherry Anne” with its deeply sorrowful tone or the melancholy “The Remission of Sin” are quite pleasant to listen to. Other examples include the almost idyllic “The Life of Nat Turner” that incorporates a nice flute solo and some beautiful string writing.

But the composer saves the best for the end of the score: Undoubtedly, the final pieces on album are the best I have ever heard from Jackman. “On to Jerusalem” is definitely the score’s stand-out track, the epic six-minute cue going through several variations of the prominent Nat Turner theme, and then culminating into a huge orchestral set piece involving various melodic layers such as increasing choral elements  and even adding African tribal percussion and chanting which is counterpointed by the orchestra. The conclusive “The Birth of A Nation” presents another major statement of the main theme, now being sung in an African dialect by a hopeful, heartbreaking-sounding children’s choir that almost brings you to tears. Seriously, if this piece does not affect you on an admittedly very emotional level, I don’t know what else I can do.

It is absolutely wonderful to see what Jackman has done with this scoring assignment: His music really breathes and manages to give the movie a musical soul by supporting the visuals on screen through his delicate music that blends choral elements, African tribal music and traditional orchestral scoring in a manner that can only be described as extraordinary. Despite the score’s generally low-key nature, it is a rather enjoyable listening experience on album, heightened by occasional outbursts of Nat Turner’s incredibly emotional theme, which indeed receives some outstanding performances.

The score actually shows that the composer is more than capable of writing music not only for mainstream superhero movies, often resulting in some rather generic action scoring, but that Jackman is someone with a deep understanding of storytelling and character development, by demonstrating his ability of illustrating the tragic story of Nat Turner in a quite appropriate manner that really works in context of the story’s thematic core. Only the fact that there are a lot of other better-executed scores dealing with the same subject as well as the amount of rather uninteresting underscoring prevents the music from getting an even higher rating. But hey, at least, it is leagues ahead of what Hans Zimmer has done with “Twelve Years of Slave” – in that regard, the ancient protégé has already surpassed his master…

Rating: ***1/2



Music composed by Henry Jackman. Additional music by Anthony B. Willis. Special vocal performances by Kamille Rudisill. Album produced by Henry Jackman.

1. Prophecy (0:58)
2. Turner Plantation (1:42)
3. The Calling (1:09)
4. A New Chapter (1:55)
5. Cherry Anne (2:43)
6. Matrimony (1:35)
7. The Oppressed (1:49)
8. The Life of Nat Turner (1:53)
9. A New Song (1:38)
10. Serving Master (1:25)
11. The Remission of Sin (1:05)
12. Transfiguration (1:50)
13. A Call to Arms (0:49)
14. The Reckoning (1:57)
15. Riotous Disposition (1:48)
16. On to Jerusalem (6:16)
17. Strange Fruit – Nina Simone (3:33)
18. Rite of Passage (0:52)
19. The Legacy of Nat Turner (1:58)
20. The Birth of a Nation (2:55)


Album digitally available on Atlantic Records.

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