The Birth of a Nation (2016) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity
Running Time: 120 min.
Cast: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Aunjanue Ellis, Mark Boone Junior, Esther Scott, Colman Domingo, Roger Guenveur Smith, Gabrielle Union. Tony Espinosa
Director: Nate Parker
Screenplay: Nate Parker
Review published October 11, 2016
Nate Parker's Birth of a Nation is based on real-life events that occurred in Virginia in 1831, where a slave named Nat Turner (Parker, Beyond the Lights) would lead a revolt against the white slave-owners. The film showcases how Nat was born into the cotton plantation of the Turner family, growing up picking in the fields, but very unique among the slaves there because he could read. His chosen book was The Bible, eventually learning to preach with the guidance of a relatively generous mistress of the house, Elizabeth (Miller, The Artist). Later in his life, his slave master, the hard-drinking but comparatively compassionate Samuel (Hammer, The Man from UNCLE), would shop him out to other locations to keep other slaves compliant through carefully chosen scriptures within. However, what he witnesses in terms of gross violence, rape and torture against the slave population soon compels him to take a stand against the oppression inflicted on people of African descent in the American South, calling on his metaphorical brothers and sisters to cast their chains away and rise up in a violent confrontation to fight for their freedom.
Birth of a Nation plays like a cross between Braveheart and a blaxploitation revenge flick, though anchored by a terrific central performance by its cowriter-director-producer-star Nate Parker. Regardless of how one feels about the picture overall, it's certainly a provocative one to take in, eliciting a range of reactions stemming from discomfort at witnessing appalling acts against humanity perpetrated by American slave owners, to downright horror at some of the most repulsive depictions of inhumane treatment. Parker deliberately titles his film to that of the infamous one done over a century ago by D.W. Griffith at the beginning of long-form narrative cinema, which seems to showcase the Ku Klux Klan in a positive light and ostensibly justifies slavery, as a means to offer this counterpoint for those who might search for the film online.
With violence, particularly in terms of police and the African-American communities, in many of today's headlines, Parker's film offers a horrific look back at some of the bitter, blood-stained the roots of the racial conflicts within American society that not even an elected African-American president can signal the end to. Despite being a potent film in terms of the subject matter, and having a handful of powerful scenes, Parker's movie is also too uneven to wholeheartedly recommend. Despite some attempts at character development, which, with the exception of Nat, end up being one note caricatures, and building a case for Nat Turner's righteous anger turning toward murder, there is a curious lack of emotional impact at witnessing much of what we see take place throughout, possibly because we are persistently being reminded that we're watching a stylized movie rather than seeing the characters and their situations as real people, even if it is based on true events. The persistent use of Jackie Earle Haley (London Has Fallen) as a fictionalized main heavy who can't resist maiming or murdering runaway slaves, including Nat's father, shreds some of the film's credibility, and authenticity in a piece like this would lend it much more power than in obvious embellishments to set up traditional narrative arcs.
There's even a romance set up within the film, as Nat spies and persuades Samuel to purchase the lovely Cherry (King, Damsels in Distress) at a slave auction, again evoking memories of Braveheart, as part of the a spark that turns Nat toward a violent confrontation against those who perpetrate sins against him and his brethren. The film also bookends the story with mystical flashbacks to Nat's youth in Africa, offering up the notion that Nat is somehow on a path of spiritual destiny to be a chosen leader by God for his people. Budgetary limitations result in keeping the film feeling less than epic, as the on-screen revolution staying relatively short in duration, though, in reality, the uprising was indeed short, only going on for roughly 48 hours.
Although the violence in the climax is not the main thrust of the film, some viewers will no doubt be disturbed by not only its graphicness, but also Parker painting the acts of butchery during the course of the revolt as heroic, or, as Nat saw it at the time, the will of God. It's a bit of an 'eye for an eye' in using weapons of oppression against them, including their Bible, as slavers cherry-picked Bible verses to justify their morally abhorrent actions, while Nat Turner would use other passages to stoke the righteous indignation among the enslaved.
Certainly, there isn't much sympathy for slave owners, but it is nevertheless disturbing to see them slaughtered in such a vicious and bloody fashion, especially that the slaves, in a reality not depicted by Parker, did not discriminate against killing women or young children (including infants), regardless of how one might feel about them getting just desserts. Then again, it's much easier to justify than the D.W. Griffith's attribution of hero status to the KKK, so I'll take Parker's troubling depiction of fighting systemic rape and murder in his spiritual rebuttal over the morally abhorrent one justifying that system found in the 1915 film of the same name.
Some critics have derided the film for fudging historical accuracy, starting from the interpretive opening scene showing Nat as a peaceful and spiritual young boy in Africa, a dream sequence; he was born into slavery in Southampton, Virginia without knowledge of the land of his ancestry. There are events that occur within the film that there is no evidence happened to Nat Turner directly or those he had been surrounded by, though they may have happened at other times to other enslaved people. There's also the issue with the love story, which has no only a passing historical contect, and given that what happens in Cherry's arc is shown in the film as providing the spark that led to a proposed revolution, some viewers may feel misplaced emotions for Turner's motivations that might not have otherwise been there.
The end of the film is also quite different than reality, changing Nat's fate as a voluntary act of self-sacrifice when in fact he was captured in hiding. In Nate Parker's defense, he has admitted that he was striving for a higher truth in embellishing the Nat Turner story, which he states is fiction based on fact, and certainly these modifications are in keeping with most of the Hollywood versions of real-life events, which are regularly altered for dramatic license.
While the buzz out of Sundance, particularly in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, had many critics proclaiming a lock for a Best Picture nomination for the film and its lead actor, subsequent controversy surrounding Nate Parker's past attachment to a rape allegation, and his subsequent mishandling of it in the media, has unfortunately tainted his reputation in the eyes of many potential Academy voters. That's a shame because his turn as Nat Turner is unquestionably his best work as an actor to date, and certainly worthy of a strong look come nomination time.
As for the film, it's not quite worthy, but that hasn't stopped Oscars from handing out nods before, so perhaps. Regardless of its hit-and-miss nature, this is a passion project that certain is delivered with passion, which, in this year of so many cash-grab adaptations, remakes, reboots, reimaginings, and other wholly rehashed projects, at least separates it from a growing trend toward placating the masses around the world. If it does nothing more than spark continued discussion on America's troubling past and the desire among many to ignore race as a central problem even to this day, as well as the use of religion to justify abhorrent means, then Birth of a Nation secures its place as an important movie in 2016, even if it isn't deemed one of the best.
©2016 Vince Leo