Reviewed by Mason Manuel
A Stale Conception
The promotion of slavery is one of the darkest blots on American history. As such, much like the Holocaust and the massacres of the World Wars, such traumatic events deserve to be remembered and chronicled in the art of today. However, a simple retelling is not enough. Chronicling true events is well and good but they still need to set themselves apart from other stories that have already been told. While The Birth of a Nation is an unarguably powerful film, it does little to nothing to set itself apart from the countless predecessor slavery biopics.
The story starts off strong enough, focusing on the criminally ignored by history Nat Turner (Nate Parker) who lead an unprecedented slave rebellion inspiring the movement that would later result in the Civil War. Nat is a strong young man who learned how to read from an early age and used his talent to study the bible. When his master (Armie Hammer) finds out that there is a demand for a slave preacher to calm down other rebellious slaves he ships Nat out to various locations to earn extra coin for his plantation. After seeing the horrifying ways other slaves are being treated Nat eventually shifts from preaching for a peaceful God to that of a wrathful one. It’s a thrilling tale and one that deserves a good telling. The issue is that much like Gladiator, the film takes a good story and then takes so many creative liberties that it feels more like a less tongue-in-cheek version of Django. Nat is a slave who throws off his bonds and becomes his own man. It’s not that it is a bad story, but it has been done so many times before and frankly, much better.
Nate Parker plays Nat and I immediately give him strike one for making it hard for me to remember which one is the actor and which is the real person given the likeness of their names. The actor definitely put his heart and soul into the film, putting his acting career on hold for years and investing a lot of his own money. He also directed, starred, produced, and co-wrote the film with his college roommate. Parker is also easily the strongest actor in film. When other events grow stale and the goings on fall into a paint by numbers scheme Parker brings the chills when he delivers one of Nat Turner’s many intense monologues preaching gospel to instigate fighting for freedom. But when the focus moves from Nat to actually tell the historical side of the story, the film stumbles. Exposition is given out in a clunky form and Nat’s motivation (originally avenging his abused wife) feels incredibly forced. Speaking of the women in this film, most of them feel incredibly silenced. Though we get glimpses of the strength that Nat’s mother and grandmother possess, they are normally left to watch in fear or admiration at Nat’s deeds. Nat’s wife Cherry gets the shortest end of the stick. She exists in the film for the sole purpose of being raped by Jackie Earl Haley’s despicable slave hunter and acting as a catalyst for Nat’s decisions. For a film that goes out of its way to preach equality, this oversight is atrocious.
Cinematography wise, Nation is beautiful in an abstract sort of way. The color pallet used is subtle and grey. Battle scenes and normal day to day goings on are drabbed in dull shades, interrupted only by the bright crimson spurt of blood or the shining ivory of cotton. Nat occasionally has visions that are appropriately hazy and strange which the camera conveys through heavy fog and uninterrupted one shot slow pans across deep landscapes. This is accompanied by a heartbreakingly somber soundtrack behind, most notable again during one of many Nat Turner monologues. Tears are sure to fall as you see the heart given in these performances matched with the somber music from Henry Jackman.
The Birth of a Nation is a poor reflection of an amazing true story but there are choice moments that are worthy of the time. Though it’s obvious that Nate Parker threw his everything into the creation of this film, it does not manage to jump the same hurdles that pieces like 12 Years a Slave beat with flying colors. It does not set itself apart from the myriad of other slavery movies but it still makes for an interesting watch if nothing else. RDR gives it a 5.5 out of 10.