Looking for a happy ending? Not going to find it here. Southampton County, Virginia, the year 1831. Slavery has been in full effect for quite some time now. Nat Turner (Nate Parker) was born into it. Unlike most, he’s actually been taught on how to read, in particular, The Bible. While still not being seen as an equal, the white man does see Nat as a valued commodity who gets treated “better” as such, compared to his brethren.
Fearing rumors of a slave revolt which would be devastating during drought season, plantation owners such as Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) decide to use Nat as a tool to quell any revolution. Surely slaves hearing about how they should remain docile from a fellow slave would do the trick, right? Over time, however, Nat sees his people suffer horrible atrocities, and begins to question what he is doing. The stage becomes set for a revolution that promises to be just as bloody as the one fought between the Patriots and the Loyalists.
The real talking point leading up to The Birth of a Nation (no relation to the 1915 KKK propaganda version, but its title was selected very deliberately), is the controversy that happens to surround star, producer, and director Nate Parker back when he was in college. It is a point that is sure to be brought up relentlessly from now until February 26. 2017, the date of the Oscars. But things deserve to be looked at as objectively as can be. Objectively as yours truly can be, The Birth of a Nation is a bold way to launch a feature directing career. The good outweighs the bad, but like most debuts, everything doesn’t hum perfectly.
The narrative isn’t the issue with The Birth of a Nation. It is actually a pretty thorough screenplay that goes beyond the “slavery is wrong” aspect by introducing religion and the identity that one has to themselves and their social group, especially in times of turmoil, which resonates today. Nat Turner the historical character has a lot of meat. Honestly, Parker doesn’t seem to get into all of it. But for what he does present to the audience, he does do an impressive job as the lead character.
Not a performance that immediately grabs the viewer, and starting out, it does feel a little suspect. But by the middle and into the end, Parker truly sells not just the physical anguish Nat experiences, but the mental anguish and internal crisis that Nat is exposed to. It is the latter that truly hits home, more so than the physical depictions of slavery. He’s firmly on the Best Actor nominee list.
However, the cast as a whole isn’t an undeniable strength of The Birth of a Nation; for every strong performance, there is a role that lacks gravitas and even realism, which whips the movie down a few notches on the emotional scale. Armie Hammer does lose himself in his slave owner character Samuel Turner. Yes, he is a bad man, but there’s still a shred of humanity that makes one care for him if only because you know he could be a good person. And in a smaller role, Roger Guenvier Smith (Dope, Deep Cover) excels.
Most of the rest suffer from having too little to do (i.e. the women in the cast, either damsels in distress or conveniently written love interests), or from being a little too caricature-y to be taken seriously (Jackie Earle Haley, especially Mark Boone Jr.). The Birth of a Nation is also weirdly inconsistent in tone in places. While no one is going to confuse this for a fluffy watch, some of the moments of lightness are endearing, but others undercut the seriousness of what’s at hand.
Directing a feature film for the first time, Parker shows good raw skill. Not many shots truly stand out, but a few do in the latter half. He certainly takes inspiration from works such as Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan during the impressive climax. If there were a noticeable flaw, I’d say that scenes which show Nat’s destiny as a leader come off as a little pretentious and overly artsy for the sake of being so. While there may be some symbolism there that flew over my head, it doesn’t really add anything to the film, at least on first view.
The Birth of a Nation doesn’t rise up to classic biography status. But all controversy aside, The Birth of a Nation is an imperfect, yet still overall compelling biography movie about a very intriguing character and moment in history.
Photo credits go to IGN.com, armiehammerfans.com, and indiewire.com
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I had read one review of this earlier this month and they weren’t even this kind to the film. It seems like this was being hyped and thereby groomed to be the 12 Years a Slave of this year. Definitely still curious to check this out, but now I think I’ll come in with expectations tempered a bit. Nice review dude
Really appreciate it Tom. This, in my opinion, has been a lock for awards season since it was announced. Especially with the whole #OscarsSoWhite thing last thing (which I couldn’t stand, honestly).
It’s a good movie, but with sizable flaws. But without seeing other award hopefuls this season, I can’t see this being a real contender. I think there would be real problems/outside forces at work if this cleans up at a lot of the major award circuits.
Had problems with the narrative myself, but I think that was definitely tied into my annoyance with the way the whole thing was presented. Definitely a bit pretentious with its symbolism, and solid performances couldn’t save an overall extremely heavy-handed presentation. Great review.
Just read your take, great one and hit on all notes super fast (I need to do that more sometimes).
I want to see more thoughts but Tom had it right, this was hyped as the 12 Years a Slave movie of the year.
Though I think it has just as much of a compelling character, if not more so than Solomon Northup, this has nowhere near the level of detail or directorial cinematography that movie possessed.
Yeah, the two stories are certainly just as compelling as each other, but 12 Years was a much better movie production wise. Which would be fine if the storytelling was just as strong, but it unfortunately wasn’t here.
That’s a balanced review. Not easy with this movie. It’s not bad but I have a hard time slotting it in as an award pick, especially with all that is going on Nate Parker-wise. Fairly or not, I think that’s going to come into play.
As far as the movie itself, it was a lot slower than I expected, and Jay hit it on the head when she said it would have been better titled solely as a Nat Turner biopic rather than the grand “Birth of a Nation”, because except for the very last scene this is exclusively Nat’s story (and his story is strong enough to stand on its own, so a broader sweep wasn’t even necessary).
The thing is, with the whole #OscarsSoWhite thing last award seasons, I think this has been preordained to fill a few slots in specific areas. I too share your sentiment, the only aspect that I think is valid for serious and legit consideration is Parker for Best Actor.
One film that I’m very intrigued with that could possibly steal some “thunder”from this is Moonlight. Sounds awesome, and it seems like it is a legitimately awesome in quality, a “Boyhood-esque” look at African America adulthood.