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Set against the antebellum South, THE BIRTH OF A NATION follows Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a literate slave and preacher, whose financially strained owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), accepts an offer to use Nat's preaching to subdue unruly slaves. As he witnesses countless atrocities - against himself and his fellow slaves - Nat orchestrates an uprising in the hopes of leading his people to freedom. Written by
Fox Searchlight Pictures
A film that wallows in the shadow of it's story and never really escapes it.
Nate Parker's stirring portrayal of Nat Turner's rebellion is a film that tries extremely hard to be something more than what it is. This is not the Oscar contender you read it to be, this is not some revelation in the vein of Roots, this is just another slavery film. Nate Parker's film sheds no new light on the brutality of slavery and does his absolute best to make sure you despise the white villains in this as anyone should as they are portrayed with much relish from the actors especially Jackie Earle Haley's menacing slave owner that serves as the main villain of the film. The problems that The Birth of a Nation has are ones that exist in it's director's overbearing ego and overwhelming goal to bring something powerful to the table. Parker succeeds haphazardly unfortunately. The Birth of a Nation tells the story of Nat Turner, a preacher turned rebellion leader as he fights racism in the south with a violent and brutal fist. The film is powerful and Jackie Earle Haley and Gabrielle Union are absolute gems in this film, with Union giving the best performance of her career and Nate Parker giving...well, a performance. The problems here lie with the film itself. The story plays like a more realistic version of Django Unchained, even lifting some inspiration from that film a little too heavily for the scenes in which the slaves are beaten and abused. However, the film also delves into the religious aspects of Turner so heavy handedly that it borders along the fine line of a parody more often than not. The other film that Parker must have had playing on his tablet while directing some scenes is Braveheart because, the last battle in particular, is riddled with countless homages to that film that border plagiarism. Between the way Parker conveys his violence and the way he immortalizes Nat Turner by making him more of a saint than he ought to be, the film gradually feels less and less genuine as the running time winds down. That was my biggest gripe with the film honestly. Nate Parker failed to convey anything human about Nat Turner outside of him witnessing the brutalization that went on around him. There is something divine in the way Parker conveys Turner and it is just too much for a film that is steeped in this much history and realism. It fails to accurately portray to rebellion as it happened. There are very few mentions of what the rebellion actually did in reality as opposed to what it did in the film. While I am not saying that Turner's Rebellion was without cause, the film dilutes the harsh realities of what Turner's Rebellion did. In a sense, I felt it was a bit disrespectful to the victims of his Rebellion both black and white. With that being said, this is a film and not a documentary, so there is some room for some creative liberties, within reason. However, this does stand as Nate Parker's first directorial effort and, for a first film, it is a damn fine effort that should lead to more work as a director. Despite this fact, it still is nowhere near enough to sustain this as a film worthy of accolades and praise. Quite frankly, there is a lot wrong with the film. The pacing is either mind-numbingly slow or so quickly cut and erratic that you can barely grasp what is going on. Also, the extreme close shots are so constant and abundant that it is just another contributing factor to it feeling very incoherent. The story is bland and has been done before and done better despite this being Nat Turner's first on-screen portrayal, the story has inspired many films that have come out in recent years such as the previously mentioned Django Unchained. The sound design, at least on the Sundance version that I saw, was very flat and felt a bit too post-production sounding. Despite all this, I can't fully write this film off. There are some truly powerful performances in the film and some well done battle sequences to enjoy but other than that, this is an average film.
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