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
The problem with THE BIRTH OF A NATION isn't the controversy surrounding the title, which it reclaims from the acclaimed 1915 silent film by DW Griffith. It also has nothing to do with the stigma surrounding the film's director Nate Parker and co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin, accused of raping a woman back in 1999. The simple fact of the matter, amidst a film festival circuit buzzing about Oscars for this little film, is that it is not that good.
This is described as being a passion project for first-time director Nate Parker (who also stars in the lead role of a slave named Nat Turner), who financed much of the film with his own money and worked tirelessly to bring the forgotten story of a rebellion to the big screen. Based on true accounts, this is another film in the lives of the Antebellum south where slaves are brutalized on screen and audiences are meant to both marvel at the art while feel shame for living in a country with such dark historical chapters. There seems to be a resurgence of slave-based films, going back to Tarantino's "Django Unchained" and followed by the masterful "12 Years a Slave" and "Lincoln." In a time when race relations are at the centerfold of a political election cycle and splatter the front pages of the news every day, the subject matter has never been more relevant or controversial.
There are certain moments in the film where an emotion rings true, or the camera catches a glance of something remarkable. Overall, I felt like I was rewatching a copy of better films. For a first-time directorial effort, this is in no way a failure of intent. Watching the film, I think Mr Parker simply paid one too many homages to similar films that have come before.
Nat Turner is a slave who is raised to read and write by the wife of his master. Growing up, there is little evidence that Turner or his family experienced an onslaught of torture, and in fact his relationship with his mother and grandmother is in many ways the center of the film. When grown, Turner begins preaching the gospel, and word spreads of the "colored preacher" who may have a way to reach slaves in various plantations and bring them to the salvation of the Lord through sermons and prayer. He becomes a celebrity of sorts, brought house to house by his master, Samuel (Armie Hammer). Along the way, he marries, has a child, and begins to ponder the true meaning of the Bible and whether or not it flies in opposition to slavery itself.
The story goes that Turner formed a militia of slaves from nearby plantations, murdered their owners, and worked their way to the center of town in attempts to overpower the whites and bring about a coup where slaves all over the South would rise up in opposition. Set in 1831, this occurred no less than 30 years before the Civil War, and the idea that tensions were bubbling up for so long only helps one to realize the fragile state of the country during the time of slavery.
The story of Nat Turner itself is a beautiful testament to God and the idea of self-worth. In the hands of a more skilled filmmaking team, there is no doubt that this story could have been a movie worth remembering come Oscar season. There is simply no subtlety in the film, which recreates similar movies nearly shot-for-shot, including a final execution scene that is all but plagiarized from the finale of "Braveheart." We have seen movies that deal with outsiders coming together to overcome a great challenge before, and when watching "Nation," there was very little to distinguish it as more than white noise in a tapestry of repetition. Even the final fight and coup amounts to little more than 20 minutes of the film and features the standard villain who eventually faces his death in a moment meant to illicit cheers from the audience (in fact, this scene felt like something straight out of "The Patriot," another Mel Gibson film about revolution and war).
As an actor, I can attest to the strength of Nate Parker's performance as a man who comes to term with his own destiny. I can also praise Aja Naomi King who plays his wife, Cherry - a woman bought as a throwaway slave but ultimately becomes the catalyst that gives Turner his strength and devotion. I can separate the controversy from the film itself. I think most artists should have their work judged separately from their personal selves, regardless. It's just a disappointment that there's not a whole lot to write home about.
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