Review by Ian Keogh
Despite being named after a landmark of American cinema, the basis of Birth of a Nation owes far more to the 1949 Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico, in which an area of London secedes from Britain. Reginald Hudlin and co-writer Aaron McGruder, best known for the Boondocks newspaper strip, set the opening salvo on more recent political ground, echoing the all too common scenario of African-Americans turning up to vote only to discover there’s a problem with their registration. One that can’t be sorted out until after the election. When even Mayor Fred Fredericks can’t vote as he’s apparently a registered felon, the state is delivered to the candidate he opposed, and so is the Presidency. An appeal comes to nothing, so Caldwell takes the big step of declaring East St Louis its own nation, separate from the USA.
Much of the opening is very obviously based on the fiasco of the millennial American election, yet despite Kyle Baker drawing the new President as a caricature of George W. Bush, and declaring him from Texas, he’s referred to as President Caldwell. Other recognisable figures are never named. Hudlin and McGruder first developed the plot as a film script, and a sense of cinematic pacing is very evident as they switch between several groups of characters, and a punchline signals a change of scene. The film development ensures strong characters, and as this is an ensemble piece they abound. Old lady Mrs Jackson features in a series of gags, but given more depth are corporate manipulator Donna Kelly, local gangster Roscoe, a man with some surprising talents, and Fredericks the man who grows into his legend. In the absence of actors Baker characterises them all brilliantly. As the sample page shows, he’s also great at setting the scene.
Birth of a Nation draws heavily on Hudlin’s experiences of being raised in East St Louis, one of the most deprived urban areas of the USA during his youth, combined with the example set by his father’s civic activism and refusal to concede the situation could improve. In true root for the little guy style, every setback becomes an advantage as the USA can’t afford to let one area become independent, yet is supremely incompetent and easily outwitted when it comes to plotting against them. There’s a warm-hearted undercurrent to Birth of a Nation, and the jokes are plentiful. A vote for the person to be represented on the new quarter comes down to Biggie Smalls or Tupac Shakur, a computer hacker began his career merely curious about X-Files style secrets, and President Caldwell’s mangled dialogue is a delight. The writers also give considerable thought to what may or may not work in the real world, which gives a pleasing authenticity to what’s essentially a comedy drama.
Why did no-one want to finance a film of this? The chances are it would have been very good indeed. The graphic novel certainly is.