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.
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