There are two films titled The Birth of a Nation. The first film dates back to the pioneer days of cinema, where D.W. Griffith’s rendition followed the relationship of two families and their involvement in the Civil War. The second is where this review will focus on and while the setting is approximately the same, it’s a different tale to behold.
This new version of The Birth of a Nation is directed by, written by and starring Nate Parker. Parker has elected to bring the story of Nat Turner to the big screen; the same Nat Turner who led an uprising of slave against their masters in Virginia in 1831. The uprising led to disaster for 100s of slaves throughout the country and Turner was ultimately and graphically executed for his insurrection. If any of that sounds familiar, it’s because in history/social studies class you probably covered the subject of Nat Turner in some detail.
Parker’s film doesn’t entirely focus of Turner’s rebellion though. It follows the events in Turner’s life that led to the rebellion, from childhood where he was believed, or if you choose to believe prophesized, to become a leader and prophet in his own right, where he began instruction to become literate through Bible study courtesy of Elizabeth Turner, to his adult life where he was a preacher, traveling around throughout the Southampton County preaching to slaves on other plantations while witnessing the atrocities done to his people and his family, particularly his wife Cherry Ann, who was bludgeoned and possibly gang raped by white men.
In witness the horrors done to his people in his waking state, to the dreams/visions he had in his sleep and relying on his instructions in the scripture, Turner marshals up a small army of the oppressed and those in bondage to rise up and march “onto Jerusalem” where they could arm themselves beyond knives, axes and hammers yet Turner’s vision ended in failure and resulted in the deaths of Turner’s small band at the hands of the Virginia militia, widespread deaths for many slaves and freed people of color and Turner’s swift execution.
I’ve been tracking this movie for some time and from what I initially saw at the time, I believed this movie to be the next 12 Years a Slave. Then came the highly controversial news of an “exciting” poster and the resurfacing of Parker’s prior rape trial, which caused me to temper my expectations for this movie but when I finally saw it for myself, I was regrettably underwhelmed by the finished product that is The Birth of a Nation.
Perhaps it was because the film left questions unanswered, perhaps it was the controversy surrounding it and Nate Parker, perhaps it was because it tried to conform into something completely unauthentic but I believe The Birth of a Nation’s greatest sin was it was trying too damn hard and in doing so, it felt a little over the top.
Nate Parker’s enthusiasm and ambition is definitely hard to miss however, I felt it difficult to decipher what Parker’s motives behind this picture truly were. Did he want to give justice to Nat Turner in the way 12 Years a Slave gave justice to Solomon Northrup? Did he want to use this film as an instrument to condemn the actions of white society on modern day African-Americans and the travesties that befall them? Did he want to incite or excite audiences with the rhetoric that people of color can fight against oppression? This movie’s purpose was too vague for my liking or maybe it’s purpose flew over my head and I simply couldn’t catch it.
Also, there are moments where it plays itself as “too Hollywood” and that hinders whatever technical and artistic craftsmanship The Birth of a Nation has going for it. For instance, during the third act of the film, during Turner’s hanging, the camera zooms in on Parker’s face, his eyes to be exact, and there was sweeping music playing as he was seeing an angel coming to welcome him into the next life. This sequence was one of many that just unnecessarily dragged on with no sense of purpose, making him look practically Christ-like and I felt that was DOA.
Granted there are also moments where The Birth of a Nation hits powerful high notes like when Turner arrives on a plantation to see a young white girl playing with a slave girl and she is leading the slave with a noose around her neck while they are skipping along. That is a powerful moment and yet it’s wasted in the shuffle of such haphazard blunders.
Parker was the only vintage standout of this film. He was solid portraying this role but in terms of the writing, direction and overall execution, The Birth of a Nation falls into the category of pretender rather than contender since it wants to be something that it is not.
The cast including Arnie Hammer, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, Colman Domingo, Mark Boone Junior, Aja Naomi King, Dwight Henry, Esther Scott, Aunjanue Ellis and Gabrielle Union, find some sort of comfort in their roles but fail to take the focus off Parker’s performance which essentially drives the film forward.
Elliot Davis’ cinematography is hit-and-miss, Stephen Rosenblum’s editing however compensates for Davis’ on-then-off visionary prowess, Henry Jackman’s score fits the tone of the film yet it’s incorporated in a manner that is overdone, Geoffrey Kirkland’s production design and Francine Jamison-Tanchuck’s costumes were fitting; The Birth of a Nation is an example of a focused but heavy plot smothering a technically mishandled production.
I suppose the best way to describe Nate Parker’s telling of the Nat Turner rebellion that calls itself The Birth of a Nation can be summed up in one word: underwhelming.