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First Look Review - THE BIRTH OF A NATION

The story of Nat Turner's 1831 slave revolt.






Review by John Bennett (@johnbennett812)

Directed by: Nate Parker

Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Mark Boone Junior



The Birth of a Nation is worth seeing for the power and importance of its finely told story - even if you have to tolerate a certain stylistic limpness from which the film never seems quite able to break free.


Ever since it premiered at Sundance, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation has enjoyed (and suffered) a storied life leading up to its wide release in the U.S. this month. Garnering awards and great press at Sundance, Parker’s film was bought by Fox Searchlight for a staggering cost of $17.5 million. Going into Toronto, the film’s good press had been markedly dampened by the resurfacing of rape allegations brought against Parker and co-writer Jean Celestin in 1999, a case that seems not to have been prosecuted as aggressively as it should have been (Parker was acquitted, but Celestin was convicted - a decision that was eventually overturned). In criticism, however, the films - not the filmmakers - are on trial (generally speaking). The verdict: The Birth of a Nation is worth seeing for the power and importance of its finely told story - even if you have to tolerate a certain stylistic limpness from which the film never seems quite able to break free.


Taking its title from D. W. Griffith’s formally influential and revoltingly racist 1914 film of the same name, Parker’s The Birth of a Nation interprets the history of Nat Turner, a slave in the American south who led a slave rebellion against white land owners in 1831. As a young boy, Turner is taught to read for the purpose of preaching the bible’s more pro-subservience passages to his fellow slaves. As he gets older and demonstrates great skill as a preacher, Turner is hired (or rather rented - the money goes to his master and onetime boyhood companion, played by Armie Hammer) by other slaveholders to preach to their slaves. While preaching, Turner observes different conditions for slaves at different plantations: most are bad; the rest are hellacious. After Turner’s wife is brutally beaten and raped by white bounty hunters, Nat sets his rebellion into motion.

My fear going into The Birth of a Nation was that there would be too much Nate Parker and not enough Nat Turner. By this I mean that movies that are produced, written, and directed by their stars can feel myopic (like Olivier’s Richard III, Allen’s Deconstructing Harry, or Affleck’s Argo). I was worried The Birth of a Nation would be a superhero movie in prestige picture drag. It happily wasn’t. Parker performs and directs his performance with the same observational passivity that the audience experiences while witnessing moments of varying degrees of intense inhumanity. His transformation into a rebel is gradual and avoids inordinate or obvious moralisation. In several moments, the change that a life of cruelty (which Parker also subtly flavours with a sense of guilty complicity) brings about in Nat vibrates with a mythic intensity. The rebellion itself might be a little too Hollywood: the explicitness of the blood-and-guts violence eclipses the profound rage behind the rebellion itself. Yet despite the showiness of the finale, The Birth of a Nation tells the story it needs to tell, and it does so with intelligence.


The content is handled with skill, but the film’s style is a bit flat. An early scene of Nat preaching to slaves from his own plantation shows dust swirling in pale light beaming in between slots in the woodwork, a kind of shot that’s become a sort of historical film cliché. Illuminated dust looked great in a movie like Lincoln, but it’s a bit ostentatious here - especially if you consider the visual slackness of the rest of the film. Most shots are bathed in a bluish light that seems manufactured instead of expressionistic. The music is dull too - a strings section ploddingly indicates to us what we should be feeling as if the content weren’t indicative enough. What’s more, some of the imagery is a bit top heavy: images like those of Nat and his wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), preparing to consummate their marriage and the image of an angel appearing before Nat feel incongruously “meaningful” and showy when compared with the flatness of the rest of the film. Happily, there are exceptions to this: moments where both the younger and older Nat appear in tribal African paint facing a mysterious white enemy ring with a haunting authenticity. What’s more, ambiguous moments like these give the audience the pleasure of interpretation - mentally chewing on cinematically ambivalent moments almost always enhances one’s appreciation of a film after the credits have rolled and lights have come up (or after the laptop has been shut).


One thing is for certain: slavery narratives have been popular among American prestige pictures this decade. So where does The Birth of a Nation stack up against Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013) and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012)? Ultimately, The Birth of a Nation doesn’t achieve what 12 Years a Slave did on the cinematic level: 12 Years a Slave poetically conveyed the beauty and humidity of a southern landscape as it bore passive witness to human atrocities, and Northrup witnessed a wider and more researched variety of atrocity than Turner does in Parker’s film. The Birth of a Nation lacks the visual flair of Django Unchained as well - but Django is an ugly, ill-conceived movie that willfully lacks any ideology while treating a subject that morally demands one. Still, the three films have something crucial in common beyond subject matter: they all serve as corrective narratives for slavery. Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) resumes his life as an educated free man. Django (Jamie Foxx) gets his bloody revenge on the entire plantation of people keeping his wife in servitude. Nat Turner realises his quixotic rebellion. (Maybe one day there will be a powerful movie that doesn’t serve as a vengeful corrective, truly highlighting the injustice of slavery - Lazlo NemesSon of Saul magnificently accomplished this very feat within the parameters of the similar Holocaust film subgenre. And maybe one day there will be a slavery film told from a woman slave’s perspective). The Birth of a Nation may not be a cinematic, or even an especially compelling movie, but its ideas and subject matter - which the film generally handles well - will never be unimportant.

The Birth of a Nation is in cinemas December 9th.






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