Birth of a Nation, The (2016)
Published by The Massie Twins
Release Date: October 7th, 2016 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Nate Parker Actors: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Aja Naomi King, Gabrielle Union, Mark Boone Jr.
rowing up as a slave in the antebellum South, Nathaniel Turner (Nate Parker) witnesses the consistent hardships and numerous atrocities inflicted upon his family. When his abilities as a preacher and public speaker find his master Samuel (Armie Hammer) loaning him out to other plantations in an effort to quell the rebellious spirits of unruly slaves, Nat steadily realizes his true calling. Gathering together his oppressed brethren, the preacher leads the slaves in a desperate bid for freedom.
Education can be an important component of storytelling, but it’s a balancing act. Sacrificing entertainment for an educational message oftentimes results in monotony or overkill. Here, the message may be uncommonly potent, but it’s hammered home in such a sustained manner that audiences aren’t given an opportunity to enjoy any of it. Many films are difficult to watch due to imagery specifically designed to be thought-provoking or informative; “The Birth of a Nation” tries to be uncomfortable too routinely, which betrays its ability to be powerful. Like “12 Years a Slave” before it, the filmmakers have put so much effort into creating at least one incredibly memorable, absolutely revolting scene of violence – that viewers aren’t likely to walk away with anything other than the recollection of that individual sequence. This does an incredible disservice to the rest of the project, which contains undeniably moving material; a love story is sensational and the actual uprising is exhilarating. But when certain, small parts overwhelm the larger picture, the film becomes easier to dismiss.
And writer/director Nate Parker has crafted a significant work, which shouldn’t have buckled under the weight of its own choice moments. The acting is exceptional and the historical significance (no matter how exaggerated or creatively embellished) is unmissable. But instead of demonstrating that an inspirational, legendary leader can originate from an ordinary man, Turner is depicted as a prophet marked by the gods, which takes a bit away from his humble origins. Correspondingly, the hurdles he faces are typical, not unique to this narrative, made less thought-provoking than loathly when the grisly displays of barbarousness are so unrelenting. Little wins are mostly absent, while haunting imagery abounds. “God’s gonna punish whoever did this.”
Fortunately, time is spent on a worthy love story (with a single line of comedy for accompaniment), along with detailed family members to establish a perpetual fear for looming loss and tragedy. Fresh visions of hellish cruelties fuel brewing injustices that ever so slowly intensify to a monumental confrontation. Ironically, the greatest moments don’t include the convenient villain (Jackie Earle Haley) who personifies the brunt of the evilness (or the invented seconds of long-awaited revenge inflicted upon him), but rather the attack against Samuel, who is depicted with a certain sympathy toward his slaves, despite failing to wholeheartedly embrace the guilt or the reasoning that prevents him from severer disciplines. In the end, the crawling, agonizing build to a briefly climactic skirmish appears unmistakably fashioned after “Braveheart” but without a sense of satisfaction amidst all the morbidity. It can’t maintain momentum or poignancy, instead offering up only a depressing perspective on martyrdom and revolution.
– The Massie Twins
The story of Nat Turner had profound consequences for America. The slave who became a preacher and then, in 1831, the leader of a revolt is said to have triggered a chain of events that included the civil war and the abolition of slavery less than 35 years later. For Nate Parker – writer, director and star of The Birth of a Nation – it’s been a seven-year journey to get his film made, and with a title provocatively taken from DW Griffith’s famously racist 1915 film about the foundations of America and the current furore around diversity in Hollywood, the timing of its premiere couldn’t have been any better. This is an alternative history of America’s roots which spits in the face of Griffith’s account.
Fox Searchlight pays $17.5m for slavery drama The Birth of a Nation
Parker starts by creating mythology around Turner. His greatness is predicted from infancy in a ceremony. He has the ability to read and is allowed to revise the Bible. He is a great orator and preacher respected by all. Then, as quickly as Parker builds Turner up, he illustrates the horrors of slavery that engulf and take him down. There’s his father who is forced to go on the run after narrowly surviving a summary execution; and a series of rapes, lashings and force-feeding inflicted on his family members. All that leads up to the crescendo of the revolt itself, its centrepiece a powerful scene of Turner trading Bible verses with a slave-owning white preacher.
Acerbic moments like that are few and far between though; mostly, the film is heavy-handed, with subtlety nowhere to be found. The horrors that Turner endures are signposted with soaring music. The focus on Turner is all-encompassing, with other characters, including his wife (Aja Naomi King) and other rebels, feeling thin and unconvincing. When the revolt does come – a rebellion that saw five dozen slave owners and their families killed – Parker doesn’t leave anything to the imagination. Heads are crushed, stoved in and chopped off. Bodies are burned, teeth are broken. It’s a cathartic blood-letting that recalls the huff and puff of Braveheart, but instead of Mel Gibson splattering the English, it’s Parker hacking at the slave owners.
The film’s name, the timing of its premiere and the huge standing ovation it received mean this will be one of the festival’s most talked-about movies. But the film’s often ham-fisted composition will leave many turned off.