-This fast-paced slave era picture is a wonderful recreation of a engrossing historical event.
Sometimes, a great drama comes out that lives up to its post-film festival hype. Although somewhat dampened by the scandal that has come out about director/star Nate Parker, it essentially has been one of the most lauded films of the year, being put in a prime position for awards consideration as we head into the meat of October. I’m not going to address the scandal, because I decided that I didn’t want to let it hurt my impression of this film, especially considering how slow of a year it’s been. After a slow box office performance, its fall from Best Picture contender to a middling, underappreciated drama is really upsetting, and I don’t want to turn away a potentially great movie on the surface when it could be one of the year’s best…and it is.
The rebellion by Nat Turner may not be something that’s taught extensively in the history books, as the effect of which is still debated about to this day. He led the most successful slave rebellion in history in terms of the carnage associated, but the fear instilled in the slave owners following it provided them with the irrational justification to execute completely innocent slaves to prove the message that these insurrections wouldn’t be tolerated. The publicity of the rebellion remains in contention in that we’re not sure whether or not to consider Nat Turner as a “success.”
Either way, the film pays true homage to his life, and the kinds of horrors that he witnessed and lived through. Nate Parker is Nat Turner, an intelligent young slave who learns to read under the tutelage of his master’s (Armie Hammer as Samuel Turner) mother Ms. Turner (Penelope Ann Miller). When a drought hits, Nat begins traveling with Samuel to preach to local plantations to try to increase slave morale. When exposed to owners much worse than his, Nat begins feeling a new kind of vengeance and anger at his place in the world.
The film-making prowess here is really excellent, combining just enough experimental imagery with a plot that is quickly moving and exciting. To distinguish it from 2013’s Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave, think of it this way: with 12 Years a Slave, the film-makers focused entirely on the emotional manipulation of such a horrific turn of events for Solomon Northup. Many of the shots are with a very broad canvas, and many of the torture scenes with slaves are played up with loud music and a sense of doom that does not eclipse The Birth of a Nation. Although 12 Years a Slave is probably a better film, their style of telling semi-similar stories is much different.
With The Birth of a Nation, we get a much faster paced, experimentally shot film that is more about rising tension than about dramatic brooding. A lot of criticism that exists about this movie is that it doesn’t have a great amount of dramatic heft, and to a certain extent, that’s true. There’s not really a moment when we cry or really feel overwhelmed by the circumstances, it’s more about playing these events one by one as we build to the eventual carnage into a third act. Just in theory, the plot structure differs a lot from most slave-era pictures. It’s not about manipulating us emotionally, but rather about how these events affect Nat as his life begins to change.
That’s why I love the pacing in this film. There are a few torture sequences that are truly horrifying, either affecting people around Nat to build his anger, or affecting him directly (I turn to a lashing scene that is truly excellent). Then, we combine these quick-fire events, seeing Nat’s demeanor completely change over time in a great performance by Nate Parker, with some really good experimental imagery that gives the film an artful flair. Even in the first scene, we understand that cinematography will be very important for The Birth of a Nation, and in terms of production value, it really excels.
A potential criticism here is that third parties (other than Samuel and Nat) don’t get the kind of characterization that may be necessary to care about the supporting players. It’s entirely about filtering the events we see through Nat’s eyes, and as a narrative device, this is fine, but there’s an occasional moment where the film could’ve been a little more emotionally investing, despite the positives I mentioned on this. When the end-deed finally starts happening, it’s completely eerie, and upon leaving the theater, it was evident that The Birth of a Nation is one of the most sophisticated, contained, and well-produced films of the year. It’s not perfect narratively, but we have to take a film like this and appreciate it for what it stands for and how it was executed.
The Birth of a Nation (2016)
Director: Nate Parker (X)
Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Penelope Ann Miller, and Esther Scott
with: Mark Boone Jr., Aunjanue Ellis, Gabrielle Union