REVIEW: “The Birth of a Nation” (2016)

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I’m not sure if any 2016 movie has drawn a more complex range of discussion than Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation”. Right out of Sundance, many instantly christened it the next Best Picture Oscar winner and a direct answer to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Some have placed the entire weight of the Hollywood diversity cause on its shoulders. Such high expectations are hardly fair.

Adding another layer was the resurfacing of a 1999 Penn State rape charge. Parker and close friend Jean McGianni Celestin (who is given a story credit in the film) were accused of raping a fellow student. Charges against Parker were dropped but information about his defense (namely his definition of “consent”) and acts of intimidation towards the victim haven’t shed him in the most positive light. Celestin was convicted but the charges were eventually dropped on a technicality. The victim committed suicide in 2012.

Essentially this renews the age-old debate of separating the art from the artist, something I’m usually able to do (Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” remains a favorite of mine). But I don’t dismiss those who struggle with Parker and his film mainly because a brutal rape plays a big part in the story. Ultimately your experience with “The Birth of a Nation” could very well be influenced by how these events speak to you.

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Personally I feel better equipped to examine the movie on its own merits. Controversy aside, there is a powerful story at the center of Parker’s film – a melding of fact and fiction. It’s based on the life of Nat Turner, a slave in Southhampton County, Virginia who led an uprising against white slave owners in 1831. Many have viewed Turner’s rebellion as a heroic and justified act which is clearly the perspective Parker takes. But in doing so he softens the edges of Turner’s actions which misses out on some of the more fascinating complexities of his story.

Parker (who wrote, directed, and starred in the film) first reveals Nat Turner as a young boy. A self-taught reader, Nat is given a Bible by the matriarch of his slave owning family (Penelope Ann Miller). Years pass and Nat becomes a preacher to his fellow slaves on the plantation which is now ran by Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer). When a local white minister (played in a near cartoonish fashion by Mark Boone Junior) notices Samuel’s slaves are “well behaved”, he suggests that Samuel take Nate to other plantations to preach calming messages to their slaves (for a price of course).

As Nat visits other plantations the true brutality of slavery is brought into focus and he realizes he is simply a tool of the slave owners. This directly challenges his view of Scripture and soon causes him read the Bible in a new way. Feeling inspiration from God, Nat puts together a violent rebellion in hopes of freeing his people and pouring out judgement on their oppressors.

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“The Birth of a Nation” is told almost exclusivity from the slave’s perspective (mainly Nat’s) which offers some truly powerful moments. This allows for the ugliness to be seen without any (intentional or unintentional) gloss. At the same time Parker’s direction and storytelling is all over the map.

The early parts feel as though Parker is simply checking off plot points. There is little narrative flow. Once the film gets to where Parker wants it to be, he slows it down and more thoughtfully maneuvers from scene to scene. There are also these unusual bursts of otherworldly imagery which seem to be portraying Nat as a mythological spiritual figure of sorts. It’s an interesting idea but Parker doesn’t let it flow naturally from the story. It’s more or less forced upon us through much more conventional techniques.

There are several compelling things Parker touches on that I wish had been explored more. There is an undeniable spiritual element particularly when Nat begins to see Scripture through a different lens. I would have loved to see more of his struggle with interpretation since it eventually birthed his inspiration for the rebellion. Instead it (and several other story threads) feels terribly shortchanged.

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Then there is the rebellion itself. The uprising began with a surprise killing of 50+ slave owners. Parker doesn’t hold back on the graphic brutality, but in his version Nat and his fellow slaves targeted the male slavers who we see throughout the film doing all sorts of vile acts. In reality women and children were also killed. This fact could have subverted what Parker is going for, but the inner moral conflict it surely brought would have been fascinating to explore.

While several things would have made this better, that in no way means this film is without value. Again, there is a powerful story at its core, and while sometimes conventional, several of Parker’s images and scenes are indelibly etched in my mind. But perhaps its biggest strength is how it serves as a profound reminder of a nation’s past transgressions. From start to finish “Birth” keeps you locked in and focused. Parker never loses the potency of his subject matter.

It’s no accident Parker chose “The Birth of a Nation” as his title. It’s taken directly from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent epic – a film praised for its groundbreaking approach to filmmaking and excoriated for its depictions of African Americans and the KKK. Parker has “reclaimed” the title and attached it to a much different picture – not a perfect one, for sure. Its uneven direction, messy script, and some heavy-handedness of its own are legitimate frustrations and while “The Birth of a Nation” strives for greatness it falls just short. Yet despite its shortcomings, there is still important and thought-provoking material here, material that deserves to be seen and talked about.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars

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20 thoughts on “REVIEW: “The Birth of a Nation” (2016)

    • Thanks so much. It really is tricky. There are several things I feel Parker could have done better. Some are with his creative choices and some with his storytelling. At the same time no one should skip the film. I really appreciate its ability to remind and challenge.

  1. Nice review Keith. While I do think the biggest problem with Hollywood today is the lack of diversity and would love to see more opportunities for movies such as these, I can’t say I’m eager to see Birth of a Nation, mostly due to Nat Parker’s rape charge. I know we should always separate the art from the artist, but it’s difficult (it’s why I have trouble watching Polanski pictures).

    • As I wrote I definitely understand that position especially considering a brutal rape plays a role in Parker’s story. I was able to separate the two but it never fully left my mind. But to be honest it has more issues than just that. It still has its powerful moments but it could have done several things better.

  2. A great review. Although for sheer bloody-minded determination to bring such an great story to the screen and raise the money independently, I would give the filmmaker another star. Of course, reducing such a complex film production to three or four star reviews is moot really as you have encapsulated the difficulty in rating the movie with some fine words.

    I mean this is a relatively low-budget film ($10 million) thus any shortcomings in the direction I think are understandable and Nate Parker deserves great praise for his incredible endeavour on this film. Obviously, the rape charges must be considered but if an individual is found not guilty in a court of law are they expected to not be allowed to live a life free from suspicion? It is a very tough call given the incendiary nature of the crime. Damned if you do – damned if you don’t, I guess.

    I guess the historical inaccuracies too are a bone of contention, but I felt the story on screen was very powerful and concur with your review’s sentiment that this is an important film. Opening dialogue on many of the issues raised are very important in society; engaging our minds gives us a break from the slew of superhero films and popcorn blockbusters. Sorry I’ve gone on a bit. Here’s my review btw:

    https://paulraylaight.wordpress.com/2016/10/15/2016-bfi-lff-the-birth-of-a-nation-2016-review/

    • Great comments. I really appreciate them. For me the directing shortcomings have more to do with a handful of Parker’s creative choices. And you bring up a good point on the rape charge. He was found innocent in court. I think what’s hurt him are the details surrounding the case and some of the stuff he’s actually since. Again, I tend to be able to separate art from artist, but I do respect those who can’t in this case.

      As for historical inaccuracies, you’re going to get those in any movie like this. I just think in terms of the movie itself, this is a case where the actual details of the uprising (what little we have) would have made) would have been fascinating to explore. Obviously it doesn’t fit Parker’s messaging, but they add such a complex layer to the whole rebellion. Still, it’s a movie that does indeed need to be seen.

  3. Excellent review, Keith. I’m with you there regarding Roman Polanski and Parker’s connection with his own notoriety. If the film wins accolades, I hope it does so because it is a well-made film with fine acting. Awards that are given as a token gesture to quieten color-counters only creates more bureaucracy, not films of quality. I’m not saying this is the case with BoN since I’ve not seen it yet, but the film seems to symbolize controversy. I like that you are able to toss aside that static and focus on the narrative and the making of the film.

    • Thanks Cindy. It’s important to me to put every effort into looking at the art solely on its own merit. Just think of the great artists, some of which painted the most beautiful lasting images but led ugly lives. In the case of BoN, I can see where people would struggle with it since a rape has a prominent role in the story. It’s a tough thing.

  4. Great review Keith! I kind of feel the same way about this one, though I have a hard time putting down my thoughts on paper. It was powerful but yet so flawed, at times Nat came across like some action hero, which takes me out of the film. Interesting point too about the controversy concerning Parker but I still think the film deserves to be seen, so I’m glad I did.

    • Thank you Ruth. It definitely should be seen. Thankfully its flaws don’t undercut the subject matter. It kept me in that place from start to finish (although, like you, a few times it did make it tough). What are your thoughts on Parker’s decision to omit key parts of the rebellion? I try not to penalize movies for having their own vision. In this case it does redefine the rebellion in a way that fits a specific narrative, but that makes it slightly less compelling (movie-wise).

      • Hi Keith, I’m not as familiar w/ the history of the film, and that’s why I felt rather unequipped to review this, though I will still attempt to do so at some point. So you’re referring to the fact that Parker didn’t include the murder of women and children slaveowners in his film, right? Yeah, I think that changes everything, as it’d be tough to be sympathetic to him and the group of rebellious slaves if that’s depicted on screen. I have some issues w/ how they depicted Armie Hammer’s character too, I’d touch upon that on my review when I get to it.

      • Yep, that element would be fascinating. The struggle with it both mentally and spiritually. The change that drove him to such drastic measures. That would be extremely difficult to see but (if done right) utterly fascinating to me.

  5. Nice review, Keith. I found this far more troubling of a movie with it’s historical inaccuracies and cinematic mediocrity. If people want any movie to solve #OscarsSoWhite, they need to focus less on this Goliath and more on Moonlight, in my opinion. That’s the quiet powerhouse film of this year, honestly.

    • I can understand your issues. This one definitely isn’t the answer to #OscarsSoWhite and I think the cooler reactions since Sundance attest to it. Some really weird creative choices that hurt the film overall. I did find portions of it powerful though.

  6. Great review. Like you, I thought there was a lot of strength in the story, but I found the directorial choices to be more harmful than helpful. I think Parker should’ve let someone else direct.

    • Wouldn’t you love to see it with another director at the helm? Maybe even a better co-writer as well. I think the script brings things down a bit more than the direction.

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