Vodcast: Is The Birth of a Nation’s Grittiness Actually a Good Thing?


The new Birth of a Nation movie is rated R, and rightfully so. But its subject matter has us wrestling again with a tricky concept: maybe, just maybe, harsh content can sometimes serve a purpose.

The truth of the matter is this: Life—both modern and historical—is not as cut and dry as we like to make ourselves think sometimes. The stories we tell and consume reflect that reality in both valuable and, often, gratuitous ways.

So, in light of that, what are we supposed to make of a movie like The Birth of a Nation?

That’s a question we wrestle with constantly here at Plugged In. Today, we wanted to wrestle with it with you and hear your thoughts on the matter, as well.

So… what do you think?

And, for those of you who want to take this discussion on the go, you can stream or download the show over on Soundcloud.


Who wrote this?

Jake Roberson is Plugged In’s social media manager and strategist. He’s the father of four children and husband of one wife, and he quite likes life that way. He also likes writing about entertainment, pop culture, dadhood … and food. He’s also a former Guinness World Record holder for participating in the largest hacky sack circle. Catch up with him on Twitter @jake_roberson

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beasts of no Nation was another hard movie to watch, but enlightened me to the reality of what happens in civil wars in Africa. 
Aaron Ellis More than 1 year ago
I'm totally fine with movies being R rated.  Its our choice whether or not to see it.     I won't watch, "wolf of wall street" or "50 shades of grey" or "Bad Mom's" not because of the rating, but because of the content.     I will watch, "American Sniper" or "The patriot" or " Saving Private Ryan "   "The Kings speech" etc... Cause I can handle the violence and harsh language.       I'm not usually watching an R rated film for entertainment or comedy, but for an in depth look at true events and \ or thought provoking subject manner.      As I always say, "Its about the content, not the rating".   I've seen R rated movies that are more tame on a profanity and sexual content level than pg-13 movies. So, yeah, I see nothing wrong with R rated movies. 
charitysplace More than 1 year ago
I agree with you that grittiness can at times serve a purpose, to make a point. On the other hand, the mind is a far more powerful tool than the eyes. Hitchcock understood this, which is why his films could be so scary. Even "The Dark Knight Rises" IMPLIED more violence than it showed -- and our mind still thought we saw the pencil disappear. So, you can still make a point, a very strong, vivid point, without exposing your audience to extremely graphic content.

From an artist's perspective, it is very difficult (for me) to decide what to put in my work (as an author). I write historical fiction a lot, where bad things happen -- executions, forced marriages, etc. I do not want to gloss over these traumatic events, but I also do not want to wallow in them or be explicit. So yes, I have a duty to explore what it's like to be thirteen/fourteen and forced into a marriage with an older man (who does not wait to consummate his marriage) -- but also a responsibility not to be gratuitous or titillating.

I have to assume therefore that in showing these awful things, including in "Birth of a Nation," the filmmaker had to go through his own set of standards, and make tough decisions -- what to show, how much to show, etc. Whatever he decided to show, is what he felt was appropriate -- whether or not I agree with how much he showed. It was not a decision made without thought, in the context that it is in.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Posted by Peggy Carter

Violence, like you said, can serve a purpose. I fully appreciate that and support it. However, sometimes, especially in cases like these, I'm inclined to be a bit rueful that there's soooo much, because, although I would really love to see this movie, I don't think I would be able to handle it. I feel the same about several others, namely, Gladiator, Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan, etc. 

I think that violence can be *tastefully* portrayed and still leave the same effect with the audience, but sadly, movies have become so dark that it's nearly impossible to find anything worth watching that isn't chock full of violence, language and other things.
Joshua Kroeger More than 1 year ago
A few years ago, I watched the hard-R film "12 Years a Slave" that was (pretty accurately, if I remember) based on the plight of one black slave named Solomon Northup.  I don't need to go into much detail about the plot, because this is a fairly recent film.  But it contained brutal depictions of violence, rape, and some graphic sexual situations.  Nevertheless, it told a poignant story that was driven home by the harsh treatment of Solomon and his fellow slaves.  I'm not saying that every scene in this movie was necessary to tell this man's story, but the graphic content certainly helps people come face-to-face with a truly horrific treatment of mankind in an important period in history.  It's hard to watch Solomon being hanged by the neck as punishment and left there with his feet dangling in the air for several excruciating minutes, but perhaps we as viewers ought to watch this sort of thing.
On the flipside of the coin, "Amazing Grace" deals with the horrors of slavery in detail, but within the confines of a PG rating.  The viewer is still made to understand how harsh the treatment of slaves were at that time, but graphic violence, sexuality and nudity are omitted altogether to make the film more accessible to a broader audience.  Watching this film recently, I recalled my experience of the aforementioned R-rated one.  I found myself wondering, "Is it really necessary to include such brutality to drive home this point to the viewers?
After watching "Amazing Grace", I was deeply moved; it had a similar effect as "12 Years a Slave".  Both are extraordinary cinematic works in their own rights, and yet I can't oust either one of them, if I were asked if an R rating is really necessary or not.  My answer would be that we sometimes need to step out of our comfort zones and watch explicit brutality.  Once again, I don't condone all the extreme content in Northup's cinematic journey.  Which is why it's wonderful to have films with gentler ratings that convey the same messages.  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago

I think a movie that uses violence well is American Sniper. When Chis Kyle was on the roof, looking through his scope, and swearing desperately for the Muslim kid to drop the rocket launcher and go home -- it set up a huge, real, and fully believable contrast between the American culture of life (mostly) and freedom verses the evil culture of Islam.  The movie was a reality shock for me.  This is why we fight, why we honor veterans, and why we vote.

Another movie that convicts and inspires me every time is Braveheart.  If I live to be old and gray, would I wish that I could go back in time and fight for truth and freedom?  Braveheart is a harsh movie, but the story reminds me that some things are worth fighting for, and that a life of honor is a glorious thing.  I would say it's my favorite film of all time.

Thanks for posting such a thoughtful video guys.  You always have something good to say, and it gets me thinking about what is important and good.