The Birth of a Nation, 2016.
Written and Directed by Nate Parker.
Starring Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Mark Boone Jr., Aja Naomi King, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Gabrielle Union, and Tony Espinosa.
Nat Turner, a literate slave and preacher in the antebellum South, orchestrates an uprising.
Addressing the elephant in the room right off the bat, yes Nate Parker (producer, writer and director of The Birth of a Nation) did sexually take advantage of an inebriated college woman roughly over a decade ago who would go on to commit suicide in 2012. It is a horrible story (especially considering Nate Parker got off clean while only his friend that was also present received some punishment) and his actions should be condemned. I am not here to judge Nate Parker as a human being or state what should have been done, or even unfairly criticize his work of art here based on my personal feelings of him as a person. With that said, it’s not easy to separate the art from the artist in The Birth of a Nation, but at the same time undeniable to admit just how powerful a piece of cinema it is.
At its core, The Birth of a Nation is about Nat Turner, a naturally gifted slave from birth; he quickly learns how to read all by himself as a child. Instead of being punished for showcasing has talent, he is taken a liking to from his owners and given a copy of the Bible, which he studies religiously. Facing an economic crisis and a potential uprising, plantation owners all around the antebellum South pay a pretty penny to have a now adult Nat read some words of wisdom from the scripture to raise the spirits of slaves living a more grueling life (some owners are far more nastier than others, choosing not to even treat their slaves as living, breathing people with emotions), all with hopes of quieting down talks of rebellion.
As you can probably guess, some of the atrocities that Nat witnesses are downright inhumane and depressing to watch, and not necessarily because they are violent, although most of the instances are incredibly brutal. Essentially, it’s about one man who has it better off than the rest of his fellow slaves (Nat is allowed a wife and isn’t forced to partake in much physical labor due to his abilities), slowly having his spirit broken, wanting to instill hope and purpose unto his brothers and sisters until he just can’t take it anymore.
Much of The Birth of a Nation is a slow burn saving all of the shocking chaos for its final act, but thankfully Nate Parker has packed the movie with a number of haunting moments, consistently leaving audiences captivated. Disregarding some occasional over-the-top dialogue that feels more in line with an exploitative Quentin Tarantino western slavery flick, the experience feels very restrained. Even the actual rape scene isn’t shown, probably because the aftermath tells us everything we need to know without the need to depict rape for the sole purpose of shock and awe. Parker certainly knows the right moments to display unflinching cruelty.
The script by Nate Parker is also relatively excellent, and should absolutely be applauded for its knack of demonstrating how people can twist the words of not just the Bible, but any religion really, to fit the context of whatever crusade a person desires. Although Nate Parker chooses to omit some disturbing relevant facts (mainly the fact that innocent women and children were murdered by slaves during the near 48-hour rebellion), Nat Turner is depicted as a morally gray man who believed that God chose him to light the fuse, so to speak.
Also, for being filmed on such a small independent sized budget, the production values of this period piece are top-notch. For example, cotton picking is practically shown in every movie about slavery ever, but not always up close and personal to the degree found in The Birth of a Nation. The tattered and raggedy wardrobe the slaves are stuck wearing definitely maintain a striking contrast to what their more privileged owners wear on a daily basis.
Some of the more artistic and stylized visual touches Nate Parker adds to the film feel out of place, but he certainly knows how to do interesting things with his locations. The cinematography effectively plays with light, at one point shining through on Nat Turner imprisoned in a cell, almost as if his actions are indeed being justified by God. He also gives a powerful performance absolutely deserving of Oscar nomination contention; the fire and passion in his voice reading passages from the Bible seconds before leading the charge, along with his more subtle facial reactions to the terrifying situations he witnesses beforehand all elicit emotion.
Realistically speaking, what moviegoers will take away the most from The Birth of a Nation is the actual uprising, which is put to film perfectly. What easily could have came across as an action sequence worth reveling in and celebrating, instead comes across as the epitome of heartbreaking and the definition of soul-crushing to witness; men are going to battle with guns and whatever sharp objects they can find against each other over something as trivial as skin color. The final moments of the film will be seared into your brain forever.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★