The Birth of a Nation

Good, but not what we had anticipated.
Movie Review #1,084


Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Biography, Drama, History. Running time: 2 hours. Rated R for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity. Released October 7, 2016. Directed by Nate Parker. Produced by Jason Michael Berman, Aaron L. Gilbert, Preston L. Holmes, Nate Parker, and Kevin Turen. Screenplay by Nate Parker. Story by Nate Parker & Jean McGianni Celestin. Starring Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Aja Naomi King, Tony Espinosa, Chiké Okonkwo, Katie Garfield, Chris Greene, Aiden Flowers, Dane Davenport, Alkoya Brunson, Griffin Freeman, Jackie Earle Haley, and Mark Boone Jr.

Starting off, “The Birth of a Nation” does really well at depicting slavery as it actually happened.  We see the cruelties of slavery through the eyes of a child, making them look even harsher.  But those opening moments only last about 10 minutes.  After our subject, Nat Turner (Nate Parker), matures into adulthood, we are no longer shown these cruelties.  Instead, Nat receives favorable treatment from white people, and he’s a well-respected preacher.  Watching his story, where whites and blacks both bow down to him, is like watching a chronicle about poverty that focuses solely on a privileged middle-class individual.  It severely undermines the harsh reality of how 99% of slaves lived.

It’s only after he baptizes a white man on his owner’s plantation that Nat is ever mistreated.  What’s so interesting about this is that the entire story leads up to a climax where Nat leads a slave rebellion.  My question is: why would he care so much to stage a rebellion if he’s hardly received a percentage of the abuse that most slaves regularly received?  His effort feels unwarranted and unmotivated.  Moreover, it’s the climactic moments that ruin the movie.  “The Birth of a Nation” feels like a Christian movie and a cinematic spiritual journey, up until we see Nat Turner and his regiment killing in God’s name.

Moments of the film are indeed moving.  Even if he doesn’t quite know how to win our minds, Nate Parker knows how to win our hearts.  He’s a passionate but inauthentic director, and an authentic and passionate lead.  His performance as Nat Turner is, to say the least, riveting.  Another notable performance is Penelope Ann Miller’s.  She isn’t 100% convincing, but she’s spirited and memorable as the wife to Nat’s original owner.  Watching her use her Christian faith not to justify abusing a slave, but rather to educate him, is rather touching.  Minutes later, hearing her regretfully tell Nat that he is now going to become a field hand, at her husband’s dying wish, is heartbreaking.

“The Birth of a Nation” is a decent movie by some standards.  However, it’s not what I was expecting.  This isn’t the film was bought for $17.5 million at the Sundance Film Festival, the largest price tag for any movie in the festival’s history.  Nor is it the Oscar shoo-in it was hailed as.  It’s not bad, but it’s not “12 Years a Slave”, either.


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