“Birth of a Nation”

October 7, 2016

Anna Wyckoff

In the act of representing the human experience, Costume Designers sometimes tackle a task more complex than just creating a character. In the movie Birth of a Nation, Francine Jamison-Tanchuck’s design had to honor not only her ancestors, but also the historical experience of people who lived and died in order to affect the course of history. The story follows preacher Nat Turner, played by Nate Parker, who also directs. A slave in Southampton, Virginia in 1831, Turner leads a bloody insurrection after he sees the scope of slavery’s cruelty. Tanchuck, who was also the designer of the acclaimed Civil War film Glory, views Birth of a Nation almost as a prequel. “Like Glory, this movie was a labor of love. We had a small budget and we needed the creativity to have the dollar go a long way,” she explains.

The period was pre-photography, so Tanchuck relied upon archival diaries, museum pieces, and paintings for research. She steeped herself in the literature of the time. Tanchuck explains, “It was really something to go back in time mentally and emotionally, and to try to feel what the people were feeling as well. I also had a grandfather that passed away in the 1970s at 108 years old. I thought about spending time with him many, many years ago, and how he would talk about how he was the first in his family to be born free.”

Tanchuck meditated on the barbarous ramifications of slavery, and then tried to focus on showing the truth of human people in an inhuman situation. She strove to use her limited budget effectively. Tanchuck made strong choices early on to make the garments look appropriately handmade. She wanted to capture the human spirit of the people in their clothing and demonstrate what they had to do in order to survive. As a result, the clothes become a map of their experiences—patched and worn. She made subtle distinctions in hierarchy between those who worked in the fields, versus those who worked in the house. Tanchuck suggests that the garments themselves reinforce the divisiveness of slavery. “Slavery was not only enslaving the body, it was also enslaving the mind, and the emotions of people,” she notes.

Working closely with cinematographer Elliot Davis, Tanchuck restricted the palette to muted, dingy tones reflective of the natural dyes of the time period and the horror of the living conditions. The end result makes the film look like a living daguerreotype.

There are few paintings or renderings that depict how Nat Turner looked. Tanchuck turned to words and descriptions to create her vision. She considered the fact that he was a preacher and the likelihood that he inherited cast-off clothing from his plantation owners. She says, “A dozen versions of the costume were built because of all the different times shown in the film. Nate Parker and I discussed that because this was a spiritual journey, we thought his clothes should look like his preacher outfit. That’s why he wears the vest, shirt, and tie—he was going into a battle that he felt was a spiritual one.” She adds, “Not that I agree with how he did this, but I do understand the journey that led him to it. It’s unfortunate that the human spirit sometimes goes into a darkness and they feel they have no way out.”

Tanchuck has great appreciation for her team, from supervisor Jessica Fasman to key costumer Earl Tanchuck (her husband), to the costumers, dyers, and the textile artists. She reflects, “It was difficult to look at the situation… to put myself in that era, that moment, thinking about how people had to survive. To try and honor the people and make this film come to life, it really takes a whole department.”

Birth of a Nation from Fox Searchlight Pictures is in theatres Oct. 7th.

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