THE BIRTH OF A NATION
Directed by Nate Parker
Starring Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King
It's hard to critique a film that depicts a real-life story, especially one as important and heavy as the story of Nat Turner. In Nate Parker's directorial debut, The Birth of a Nation, Turner's rise as a hero is overshadowed by flawed filmmaking and an uneven structure. Despite it's imperfections, the harrowing tale still resonates and sparks an internal dialogue, especially vibrant in today's social conversation.
Not only wearing the hats of director and writer, Parker stars as Nat Turner, a slave preacher whose own personal battles lead him to starting a revolution in the antebellum south. We first meet Turner in the intrinsic past, connecting his upbringing as a child born into slavery in the states to his ancestors' in Africa. A quick learner, Turner breaks past slave barriers, learning to read and write at an early age. His transition into adulthood gave way to his love of the scriptures and his fame as a preacher, sent to other, nearby plantations to preach the Bible's passages regarding slaves submitting to their masters in hopes that rumors of uprisings would cease, especially if slaves were hearing these words from one of their own kind.
Though his own experience as a slave is short of positive, compared to what he sees on other plantations, Turner is soon awakened to the dire circumstances in which his fellow people are trapped. The horrific conditions are shown in all of their terrible glory, with malnourished, timid faces giving way to nearly-dead men and women on the brink of destruction. When Turner's own wife is assaulted by a group of slave owners, he finally decides he's had enough. What's next is the fight that turned Turner from a peace-keeping figure of slavery to a legend in the fight for freedom.
There's no denying that the story of Nat Turner is compelling. And, for the most part, Parker means well. With few artistic liberties taken in the telling the story (the love story and assault being the most noticeable enhancement), we're given an intense picture filled with plenty of striking images. A glimpse of a young white girl playing with a young black girl, leading her by a rope, packs a complete emotional punch. The horrified reaction from the audience plays as a second soundtrack to the film, especially in the last half.
As an independent film, the artistic elements are top tier, with the score moving things along pleasantly and moments of sweeping cinematography adding a southern beauty to the tale. It's the awkward structure of everything in between that holds back the entire picture. Some of this can be attributed to Parker's newness. Plus, with such an ambitious story at hand, it's hard to imagine the scope could be achieved without a bigger force behind it.
The Birth of a Nation isn't a terrible film, by any means. The heart of the Nat Turner story is enough to draw you in. But, without a clear artistic vision, it's hard to completely see what the film is trying to do. Is it serving as a warning? Is it trying to empower? In reality, it's playing it very safe, relying on a subconscious passion to hopefully sustain it. Perhaps it would have met its own ambitious expectations had it been more forward in its message, much like Broadway's Hamilton. Plenty of mediocre movies have been made about important, historical events and people. Having a good story to tell isn't enough to create a great film.
Parker is a fantastic performer and talent. If this is the kind of film he's pieced together on his first outing, the sky's the limit for the next project.
Runtime: 120 minutes