Movie Review: The Birth of a Nation
R | 120 min
Director: Nate Parker
Stars: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller
by Jason Koenigsberg
Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, not to be confused with the controversial D.W. Griffith 1915 silent classic of the same name, opens up with a quote from Thomas Jefferson about justice. This film is just piling on the irony, with a title of the most blatantly racist American movie and then a quote from the US President that loved slavery and owned more slaves than any other founding father. It seems that writer/director/producer/star Nate Parker is trying to take the title ‘The Birth of a Nation’ back and make it his own and not the infamy that name stands for in cinema. Unfortunately, his The Birth of a Nation is not quite as powerful and groundbreaking as he may have hoped.
This film does not provide the insight about Nat Turner who famously led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831 that it should have other than putting a human face to the name we have only seen portraits of. Sadly, we learn very little more about Nat Turner than you would from a history textbook. The Birth of a Nation is just the standard Hollywood biopic treatment given to Nat Turner. It has all the elements of recent biography movies with the sense of self importance, schmaltzy romance, and a forgettable orchestral score accompanied by the usual chants and wailing vocals.
We first meet our hero Nat Turner as a child running at night and coming across slaves participating in an African tribal ritual where they tell him that he will grow up to be a prophet. Obviously the beliefs of his ancestors are meant to sharply contrast the Christian Bible that Nat Turner learns to read and preaches from and eventually he reverts back to his African roots before leading a revolt and murdering white slave masters and their families.
We see Nat Turner as a boy and friends with his owners son, who eventually grows up to be Armie Hammer and his relationship with adult Nat Turner is more collegial than many other masters and their slaves we encounter. However, even the nicest white people in this film still acknowledge blacks as subhuman and property as Penelope Ann Miller’s benevolent character states that there are “some things they cannot understand that white people can”. Eventually Nat Turner grows into a man who cannot bear to watch any more violence, sexual assaults or cruelty rained down on his people by their masters.
Throughout the film we get images of cotton in various forms, none as powerful as the blood splattered on the cotton fields in a single shot from Django Unchained (2012), but it serves its purpose to remind the audience that this cotton cost millions of people their freedom for generations. The sets, costumes and cinematography are all stellar and capture the feel of Virginia during the antebellum period.
However the script was so heavy handed and preachy that every line of dialogue seemed like it had a purpose. Although that may work well in some movies, here it just reinforced that this film is based on a true story and it did not feel as realistic as it should have. As a result of the poor screenplay the acting was oddly unnatural. So much so that it is difficult to be swept up in this movie the way other powerful historical epics can. The Birth of a Nation feels like you are watching a movie the whole time and that is a real shame.
The life of Nat Turner and his legacy is a great narrative and it is hard to make a mediocre movie about this story yet Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation achieves exactly that. Maybe as his first feature film Parker bit off more than he could chew as the writer/director/producer/star of a historical drama about a slave rebellion. The Birth of a Nation would have been better serviced by a more experienced writer and director.
That is not to say The Birth of a Nation is not without its admirable qualities. Parker used the camera very well to convey emotions and the acting would have been less forced if changes were made at the screenplay level. What we ended up with is a poor man’s Braveheart (1995). Mel Gibson was smart enough to direct a feature film before tackling his historical Oscar Winning epic. Nate Parker showed great potential as a director especially with the films closing shot which is so powerful it is almost worth the price of admission. Although The Birth of a Nation ends strong the majority of the two hours the audience will be fully aware that they are sitting in a theater, watching actors, in a movie, from a shoddy screenplay.
In no way is this review or star rating influenced by any rape allegations against the director/star Nate Parker. I am not influenced by his personal trials and tribulations as I have constantly defended Roman Polanski and Woody Allen. They may be flawed people that have done terrible things, but they are undeniably great filmmakers. I am separating the man from the artist and that has no impact on my critique of The Birth of a Nation. Instead of seeing that, stay home and check out the vastly superior 2013 Best Picture Winner 12 Years a Slave.