THE BIRTH OF A NATION (Movie Review)

birthofanation_cover
*** out of ****
Rated R
(for disturbing violent content and brief nudity)
Released: October 7, 2016
Runtime: 120 minutes
Director: Nate Parker
Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Penelope Anne Miller, Mark Boone Jr., Jackie Earle Haley, Gabrielle Union

The Birth of a Nation is a good movie, but it’s not a masterpiece.

That’s sort of an odd anti-declaration to make right off the bat, but in this case it’s a helpful one.

Coming on the heels of explosive hype out of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival – where it won the Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Award, and was sold for a festival-record seventeen million dollars – The Birth of a Nation was seen, in one respect, as the savior to Hollywood’s #OscarSoWhite problem. The actual movie, however (about a real-life slave uprising), is from a first time filmmaker, and it can’t live up to the burden of so much expectation.

Nevertheless, actor/writer/director Nate Parker has made a movie worthy of viewing and conversation, particularly at a time when race relations in America find themselves at another violent crossroads. What this adds to that conversation is intriguing, even incendiary, because the implications of its blunt and unapologetic conclusion – which blurs the line between righteousness and vengeance – could scare a lot of white people. (I’ll do my best to address that head-on in a bit.)

It’s also particularly unique in that, through its central character of Nat Turner (a slave preacher that went from using Scripture to subjugate his fellow slaves before eventually wielding it as a prophetic voice to fight back), The Birth of a Nation is perhaps the first movie to directly wrestle with the fact that the United States’ sordid historical treatment of African-Americans is inextricably linked to its use of the Bible to validate it. Our country’s greatest sin never happens if Scripture wasn’t misused as justification. And yet, the abolition of this sin never occurs without the Bible also being held up as the movement’s moral foundation.

This provocative nature is imbued right into the title. It takes what sounds like a movie about Revolutionary War heroism and turns it on its head. Here, The Birth of a Nation is a defiant label for an early 1800s American slave revolt, and the most lethal one in U.S. history at that. Furthermore, as cinephiles will instantly know, it culturally appropriates the title from D.W. Griffith‘s 1915 three-hour silent movie epic that, in part, lionizes the KKK. Parker’s theft of this title, one century removed from its source, is like a pugnacious middle finger that embodies the spirit of a people that revolted against a nation founded on revolution.

It’s unfortunate, then, that the quality of the filmmaking doesn’t quite match the sincerity of its filmmaker. This isn’t a bad effort from Parker, per se, so much as a rudimentary one. With a vision and structure more hewn to a well-made TV docudrama than one worthy of Oscar buzz, The Birth of a Nation sort of comes across as what a bid by Tyler Perry to be taken seriously might look like. That’s not a snarky, snobby dig at Parker by any stretch but simply an honest assessment of how to calibrate your expectation. For a true story most of us have never heard of, this ends up feeling fairly familiar.

Even with laudable artistic flourishes that hint at a directorial career worth tracking, The Birth of a Nation is a conventional take on a challenging subject. Dubbed a black Braveheart for good reason, Parker’s script unfolds with recognizable beats, so much so that their predictability begins to compromise tension rather than amplify it. People feel more stock than authentic in a largely undistinguished cast (the white slave owners much more so, who are marred by caricatured, often melodramatic performances); Parker, however, rises above with a palpable incarnation of Turner’s mesmerizing internal arc.

Ironically, this actor-turned-director feels more assured with his collaborators behind the camera than with the ones in front of it. Visually, Parker does some interesting things on occasion. He certainly doesn’t flinch from gruesome brutality (indeed, that’s the point here, both as a cause and effect), and some of his images have a haunting poetry.

Parker’s screenplay is smartly constructed but simplistically rendered in the details – especially the dialogue, which is often rote and on the nose. His instincts are stronger as a visionary than they are as a storyteller of subtext. Even so, as a character study of Turner it’s powerful (he’s like MLK and Malcolm X rolled up into one), and his growth tracks the thematic layer of how Scripture was first applied as an oppressive document before being used as a liberating one. Nevertheless, on the whole, this is not the nuanced yet bold realism of 12 Years A Slave, which made a well-trodden subject seem revelatory.

And then comes that last half hour, the moment of truth. It’s easily the film’s strongest stretch and, given everything that came before it, Turner’s violent revolt feels as justified as William Wallace’s (although this depiction skirts the harsh reality that women, children, and families of slave owners were among the killed, not just the slave owners themselves). Justice is finally meted out, but it’s a very morbid catharsis.

That paradoxical tone is to Parker’s credit; this should be disturbing, even in its necessity (and perhaps because of it), not bloodthirsty or rousing cheers. Cinematically it’s a small-scale epic, produced on a limited budget while still achieving a visceral (if not visual) grandeur. Just like the slaves with their axes and mallets striking in the dark of night, The Birth of a Nation wields its power with primal force, even if the full scope of its actual 48-hour insurgence isn’t entirely realized.

While all audiences – black, white, and otherwise – will sympathize with Turner’s uprising, particularly in its context, the more perplexing question they’ll be left with is, “What does this mean for us today?” It’s a daunting, unavoidable question in a tragic season of racially charged killings involving police, violent protests, and Black Lives Matter.

For his part, Parker does not attempt to contextualize these events in a broader historical or philosophical framework, nor did he have a responsibility to. Yet its natural to draw parallels between those events and now, and all the movie gives us as an answer is violence.

And so, if anything, The Birth of a Nation is a good case study in what we should require of our movies and what we shouldn’t. Parker’s film passes the test; it’s true about its subject and its time. To require it to be a broader polemic to contemporary events is, ultimately, not only unfair but unwise. It’s up to us to be discerning of where parallels should be justly drawn and where they shouldn’t. Any movie’s call to action should be dialogue, not blind replication.

The Birth of a Nation is an admirable account of Nat Turner’s story, even a worthy one, yet I can’t help but think that in the hands of a more experienced director it could’ve been better. Still, given that the story is largely unknown, credit Parker for finally telling it – and with such conviction. As with many reflections on our nation’s greatest sin, it’s long overdue.

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