The Birth of a Nation Reviews
The unproductive, circular debates on slavery, racism, rape, gender and history made it a much easier for critics and awards organizations (outside of the NAACP Image Awards, Black Reel Awards or African-American Film Critics Association) to write-off the film altogether rather than have to contend with debates, protests and boycotts possibly being waged at their doorstep. By late 2016, the awards season conveniently had other and better-reviewed contenders dealing with racial issues to choose from including Moonlight, Fences, Hidden Figures and Loving. Unfortunately, the controversies have completely overshadowed the film and little has been discussed about the film itself.
The film tells the story of Nat Turner, a slave who led a violent rebellion in Southampton, Virginia in 1831. The film largely diverts from historical accuracy to create a Braveheart meets 12 Years a Slave drama that downplays the complexities and even harsher realities of the real-life events to engage in a less morally ambivalent story. In doing so, the film lacks any original, or even meaningful observation of the situation. Instead, the film uses a traditional storytelling frame in which all the events seem staged for an easily-identifiable affect whether it be planting the seeds of a later event or simply making certain characters unsympathetic rather than giving weight or purpose to their actions, beliefs or ideas. To his credit, Parker does demonstrate an ability toward directing as he produces good-enough performances, and fine aesthetics from cinematography to production design within a historical period drama.
Still, his film lacks heft in the storytelling department. The pacing, while consistent and spacious, fails to give the characters enough depth or room to shine, especially Aja Naomi King who might have had an extremely compelling role in the film but instead fades into the background becoming merely nothing more than a symbol of victimization. Much of the film lingers on dehumanization followed by the slowly unraveling reactions in Nate Parker's performance as Turner, which seems designed to make the final events more perfunctory. Nevertheless, the scenes of gut-wrenching torture of slaves are never matched by events that are triumphant in reaction.
Instead, the film comes off as an exercise in despairing for its own sake. It is never uplifting or inspiring, nor does it provide any solace or satisfactory answer to the dehumanization that had transpired throughout. Instead, it presents a harrowing, and sorrow-filled experience made complete with an unsatisfactory last salvo that arouses no excitement. It ends on a seemingly defeatist and hopeless note, worded in aftermath. By the rolling credits, it becomes apparent that The Birth of a Nation has literally nothing to offer its audience as it's story remains as depressing as it started. Its history is that of convenient Hollywood fantasy. Its frame provides no insight as it sinks under the weight of its own lack of originality. Its revenge quenches no blood-thirst. Its end lacks any hope or productive send-off. It's less apparent, considering its poor overall results, what all this hurrah, controversy and debate was for. Such disruption of social harmony demands a better film with at the very least, something to say worth thinking about afterward.
Based on a true story, and produced by, directed by, written by and starring Nate Parker, this movie had the potential to be a powerful examination of the inhumanity of slavery. However, for the most part, it doesn't go anywhere new and is quite dull in its delivery. The first 70% or so of the movie would be only interesting to those who had never seen a movie or documentary on US slavery before. Pretty stock standard stuff, with one-dimensional characters and predictable plot. Quite clumsy at times too, with unnecessary symbolic imagery that is almost laughable.
The final 30% sees the outcome of this brutality and is fairly interesting, with an ending that is reasonably powerful. However, it is underdeveloped and demonstrates how bad the pacing of the movie is. Instead of spending 70% on overdrawn setup and 30% on hasty conclusion, Parker should have built up the pace and spent more time on the outcome.
On another note, the choice of title is interesting. The 1915 film The Birth of a Nation is one of the most controversial and divisive movies of all time. Directed by cinematic pioneer DW Griffith, on the one hand it is lauded as a seminal moment in movie history, due to its cinematographic innovations. However, it is also one of the most racist movies ever made, ending up as a pro-Ku Klux Klan propaganda campaign.
If one of the aims of the 2016 The Birth of a Nation was to reclaim what the title means and set the record straight, fair enough. Just a pity the finished product doesn't come anywhere close to living up to that billing.
Watch 12 Years a Slave instead.