The Birth of a Nation
From a young age Nat Turner (Nate Parker) was always told that he was going to be somebody important in life. By the “blessing of God” he had the ability to read words, which allowed for his slave masters to bring him into their home to learn about the word of God. Fast forward to his adult years, Nat is now preaching the word of God on Samuel Turner’s (Armie Hammer) plantation. This upbringing allowed for Nat to see the far more pleasant ends of things as a slave; though he was around the atrocities that occurred he never directly felt it. However after visiting a few other plantations and altercations with other white men, he begins to question everything he’s been taught through the bible. Thus resulting Nat deciding he has rally up all the slaves to rebel back against the slave masters.
This film has been causing controversy in ways I had not expected. I had heard rumors about violent rape scenes in this film, but they weren’t shown on screen, but that brought up director/writer/actor Nate Parker’s own rape allegations in 1999. Additionally, this film shares the name of D.W Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) which is a romanticized story about the KKK, which contributed to the rebirth of the KKK in America. Although this film has a clever re-envisioning of the film title. I figured this film would have that effect again, since Parker’s story was about the slaves rebelling against the masters. This is something we have all wanted to see, and love it or hate it; Quentin Tarantino gave us his own version with Django Unchained. However associating the art with the artist has seem to be the topic of discussion which is a shame, because a lot of people will bring the focus onto the artist rather than the story as a whole.
This is the first feature film for Nate Parker, and its admirable that he chose to tell the story of an important figure in history that is often glossed over school’s textbooks. Although I didn’t feel like I learned too much about Nat Turner. Yes, he lived a relatively good life as a slave, but I felt like the film was more so focused on his relationship with Cherry (Aja Naomi King), and after she was raped he finally acted upon all the build up of things he saw. While this makes complete sense, it did not feel like I was watching something new or intriguing. The whole structure of the plot in first hour and thirty minutes felt like I was watching a movie that has been done before, but in a lesser way. Additionally almost all the characters felt like cookie cutter characters. All the slave owners had little to no morality; they were all evil slave masters who abused their status. Where as in 12 Years A Slave, you have a wide array of white people in that film from Paul Dano abusing his status as a younger white male, to Bendedict Cumberbatch being a seasoned slave owner but admirable, and Brad Pitt’s different perspective on slavery being that he was from Canada. You can even see it with Paul Giamatti having a little humanity while selling the slaves to different masters in comparison to the owner who was slaving slaves in The Birth of a Nation.
Though to the films credit, as being a independent film we are introduced to vast array of great actors despite the roles some of them had to play, but Nate Parker gave an emphatic performance as Nat Parker, from quoting varies bible verses in the face of opposition, to leading a extremely heartfelt battle cry towards the end of the film. I hope he continues to pick up some acting roles during his career, as well as directing.
Despite my dislike for that first hour and a half, there were moments that were great, but the biggest come away was the topic of religion. Religion has always been a staple of the United States, but rarely do you see both depictions of how the bible was used. The slave masters used the bible to justify their actions on slavery, and essentially said it was God’s will that the African American’s work on God’s green earth. In 12 Years A Slave which overall is far superior film, they touch on this but not nearly as much as The Birth of a Nation. In contrast to the slave masters depiction of the bible; Nat’s special upbringing and observations of everything going on around him brought out an epiphany that they were being controlled wrongfully and that the word of God is being twisted. Though Nat ends up also using the word of God wrong, and in turn brings up a rebellion that had all the slaves sneaking onto plantations to slay the white families. There is a riveting scene between Nat and Reverend Zalthall (Mark Boone Junior) when they exchange bible verses which shows this huge contrast in the way they have interpreted the bible, but it’s followed up by a crucial scene where Nat is whipped which results in a touching scene with the use of candle lights.
The score of the film was also distracting as well. I remember while watching 12 Years A Slave, there were so many moments of silence or atmospheric sounds filling the air, which literally brought you onto the plantation to experience it all with Solomon Northup. While, The Birth of Nation highlights far much more lifestyles of slaves and towns than 12 Years A Slave. This film is ruined by the uplighting score every-time there is a speech which is there to make you emotionally want to rebel with them, but that took me out completely. It’s overplayed and the story alone should be enough to make you want to rebel for them. Sound is important, and yes they used it with the right idea in mind, but it didn’t fit the story at all. I believe this highlights the inexperience of Nate Parker, and shows he has a lot of promise but still things to learn in his directorial career.
The last act of the film is almost enough to redeem the film. The moment when the slaves finally take to arms and rebel against the owners. The film completely switched tones from this soft slave tale, into a gruesome blood bath. There was an intense, well choreographed fight sequence between the blacks and whites. Though I was hoping it could have been prolonged considering the fact it was almost a two day rebellion, or more in depth to his capture/confession. I realized I have compared this film to 12 Years A Slave more than often, which is unfair because the latter has already established it’s self in the cinema, as well the director. However, that highlights the expectations I had for this film in terms of quality, and emotional effect that it was going to produce.
Overall, The Birth of a Nation is a solid directorial debut from Nate Parker, he brings passion to his story and has nice production value to the story despite funding $100,000 out of pocket for this independent film. Though the film focuses too much on story and progressing the plot forward that it misses the mark on allowing the audience to feel for the characters in the story. Which unfortunately doesn’t allow the film to hit at home as other films about slavery have accomplished.
My Rating:★★½ / ★★★★★
Dir. Nate Parker
IMDb: 5.4/10 – Rotten Tomatoes 74%
WON Sundance Grand Jury & Audience Award for Dramatic
“Let the high praise of God be in the mouths of the saints, and a two-edged sword in their hand to execute vengeance on the demonic nations. Sing to Him a new song”