Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours
MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Violent Content, and some brief Nudity
Directed by: Nate Parker
Written by: Nate Parker
Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Mark Boone Junior, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Aja Naomi King, Gabrielle Union, Penelope Ann Miller & Jackie Earle Haley
THE BIRTH OF A NATION has been making headlines since it premiered at Sundance. This Nat Turner biopic was the 2016 festival’s hot ticket, received tons of praise, broke a Sundance record (Fox Searchlight paid over 17 million for distribution) and was already in talks to be an Academy Award heavyweight (despite it being friggin’ January). The film sounded interesting from the get-go because we haven’t seen the story of Nat Turner’s rebellion on film before and it was a passion project for triple-threat Nate Parker (directing, writing, and acting). Though BIRTH OF A NATION seems to be dividing audiences and critics alike, I found it to be mixed bag Oscar bait. There are undeniably powerful scenes in this film, but almost an equal amount of mistakes from a first-time filmmaker.
Set in the early 1800’s, THE BIRTH OF A NATION tells the story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker). Being literate and knowledgeable in the Bible, Nat becomes a slave preacher and his master Samuel (Armie Hammer) realizes that he can cash in on his unusual slave. Though he was mostly content with his existence on the Turner plantation, Nat soon travels to rundown farms with horrible conditions for their “workers.” Seeing the ugly, brutal, and awful truths of slavery, Nat plans a rebellion…one that will show no mercy and will put his name in history books.
Despite being an amateur director and a so-so writer, Nate Parker is one hell of an actor. His performance as Nat Turner has many powerful moments and the raw emotion on his face speaks greater volumes than any line of dialogue ever could. The viewer is shown many pieces of Nat’s life leading up to his rebellion to fully understand his background (some of it has been altered, this is a movie after all) and to watch his progressive determination to rise up against an inhumane period of history. Though other slave characters pop in and out, the only two stand-out supporting black actors are Aja Naomi King as Nat’s wife Cherry and Aunjanue Ellis as Nat’s mother Nancy.
While the slave-owners are mostly villainous means to an end, a handful of white cast members stick out. Armie Hammer delivers the second-best performance in the film as Samuel. We see his gradual transformation from a kindly friend to Nat into an abusive alcoholic who’s totally fine with exploiting and abusing his former friend as property. Jackie Earle Haley is fantastically evil as the central antagonist leader of a militia. Mark Boone Junior is solid as a scumbag preacher who believes that certain holy deeds cannot be performed by black men and gets into a scripture quote-off with a well-versed Nat in one of the film’s best scenes.
For the most part, BIRTH OF A NATION doesn’t reflect its small budget. The cinematography is professional and slick. The story feels told on a larger scale, especially as Nat goes on his preaching tour to other plantations. It’s worth noting that BIRTH also doesn’t shy away from the horrors of slavery. This movie is hard to watch in places, especially when Nat preaches at one particularly rundown plantation with a sadistic owner. The camera doesn’t turn away from terrible tortures, corpses strewn on the road, and powerful images that need no violence to get their point across.
Where BIRTH OF A NATION falters is in its depiction of Nat’s rebellion. This event takes up about twenty minutes of screen time and feels like it should have been a significantly bigger portion of the two-hour movie. We see Nat’s planning in advance as well as the beginning of the bloody uprising, then a quick montage that conveniently cuts out women and children being slaughtered, and then the militia eventually putting a stop to it. It feels like this portion of the film should have felt bigger and longer. Also, Nate Parker doesn’t seem interested in delivering a fully fleshed out depiction of Nat in the climax. This film would have been more powerful, brave and honest if it had shown that the rebellion had its ugly side.
Besides glossing over some inconvenient history, BIRTH OF A NATION feels like it’s simply going through the motions at points. This mainly comes in Nat’s relationship with Cherry. Though they have a few touching scenes together, the focus is mainly on Nat…which leaves Cherry as a background character who only comes back when she’s needed to emotionally move the plot forward. This movie also uses other overly manipulative filmmaking techniques that make it appear as if Nate Parker doesn’t trust his audience to follow along. One irritating bit of editing includes shots of horrible atrocities as Nat plots his rebellion, because apparently slavery wasn’t enough of a reason to fight back and the viewer needed reminding of a scene that happened less than an hour ago. Steven Spielberg didn’t need constant flashbacks to show why Oskar Schindler was trying to save the Jews during the Holocaust.
NATION’s most aggravating aspect is its over-the-top music. There are potentially great scenes that are completely ruined by music that tells the viewer how to feel. Properly utilized, music can aid a scene or put the final touches on a moody/emotional moment. It helps the scene along. However, BIRTH OF A NATION’s music practically becomes the scene and overshadows what’s occurring on the screen. The aftermath of a whipping and Nat’s defiance of sadistic authority would have been amazing…if this scene had been left completely silent, but a big orchestral number rises to let us know that we should be feeling bad and rooting for Nat to stand up. Scenes like these give the term “Oscar bait” a bad name. There are also dream sequences that throw nothing of real value into the narrative and seem to exist purely for adding a pretentiously artsy vibe to the feature.
THE BIRTH OF A NATION is a movie that could have been powerful, challenging, and amazing. That might have been the case if it had been directed and written by someone else. Nate Parker’s intentions were good, but he fumbles this movie into being merely serviceable at best. There are great qualities in this film. The meager budget isn’t apparent in the production values and cinematography. The performances are rock solid from everyone involved. Certain scenes are hard to watch, historically accurate and won’t leave your head after you’ve seen them. The film is also manipulative in many ways: glossing over the darker inconvenient parts of its true story, frequently reminding us about Nat’s motivations with flashbacks, and using cheesy music that tells the viewer how to feel. As a whole, BIRTH OF A NATION is a mixed bag big-screen version of a great historical story!