Finally coming to theaters nine months after its Sundance triumph and subsequent controversy over the revelation of a 1999 campus rape case for its writer-director-producer-star Nate Parker, The Birth of a Nation is bringing a lot of baggage with it. In terms of reviewing a movie like this, do you take the film and the personal troubles of its creator into account, or do you separate the two in fairness simply to what is onscreen? As I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), I have chosen simply to review the movie.
Perhaps a tougher thing in judging this movie was the hype that surrounded its debut at January’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won the top two awards, caused a sensation right in the middle of the #OscarsSoWhite dust-up, was picked up for a record $17.5 million by Fox Searchlight and immediately dubbed a front-runner for the 2016 Best Picture Oscar race. I wasn’t at Sundance and didn’t see it then. With that in mind, I finally saw Birth of a Nation at Toronto last month and knew that few films can live up to that kind of preface. For me, this one, unfortunately, didn’t.
Strip away all the noise, both good and bad, surrounding it and look at the movie itself. Birth of a Nation is at best earnest, sometimes plodding and certainly relevant to current events through the prism of history. But it’s still a largely uninspired passion project for its first-time writer-director Parker, who might have been better off casting someone else in the lead role of Nat Turner, the self-educated slave who led a rebellion against white slave owners in 1831 Virginia. This is not to say Parker doesn’t do well in the role, but perhaps if he were more concentrated on the filmmaking aspect of it, things would have turned out better. There is no question there are scenes here with lots of visceral, strongly emotional power, to the point that reportedly some early audiences have risen to their feet to cheer the film (though not at the packed Toronto press screening I attended). But too often, particularly in the film’s pretty dull first half, it all comes off as standard Hollywood biopic stuff, or worse a midlevel TV movie you might see on History.
The ultimate uprising scenes in the last half-hour do have strength but not a lot of directorial flair to them. It’s ironic that Fox Searchlight was the company that released 12 Years a Slave to great acclaim and the Best Picture Oscar. That film, directed by Steve McQueen, was an artistic triumph that connected across racial lines and was deeply moving. There are similarities here, but this just seems to be lost in its shadow. The impact here isn’t even close to that 2013 cinematic triumph, even if comparisons are unfair.
There is a better film to be made about Nat Turner. William Styron won a Pulitizer Prize for his book on the complex Turner story, but in Parker’s movie, the rebel slave is almost saint-like and sanitized, rather than believable as a man driven to do what he did. Norman Jewison, the veteran director behind such powerful racially oriented films as In the Heat of the Night and A Soldier’s Story, attempted to make a movie on Turner decades ago, but the studio got cold feet thinking it might be too incendiary, among other reasons.
Clearly, Birth of a Nation was a passion project for Parker, who put his acting career on hold for a few years to get this made. For that he should be proud. It is admirable to try to bring a largely hidden, and shameful, part of our history to life on the screen, so it is doubly frustrating that it isn’t better than this flawed attempt. The film, which takes its title from D.W. Griffith’s landmark 1915 movie that remains controversial today for putting the Ku Klux Klan in a positive light, is Parker’s answer to past Hollywood wrongs in the depiction of race and slavery. Good. African-American filmmakers should be given more opportunities to tell historical stories from their POV. But for me this film is much closer to Gary Ross’ Free State of Jones, a film with a similar setting that was a 10-year passion for Ross to get to the screen, which he did this summer, to little effect. Sometimes you can be well-meaning but just get so invested in your singular vision that you lose your way.
I suppose, though, that Parker made the movie he wanted to make about Turner, who grew up best friends with a young white boy named Samuel (Armie Hammer). But things change when Samuel takes mantle of slave owner. But Nat is a self-taught, voracious reader who becomes a very good preacher. Samuel enlists him to help with his slave problems, which is where Nat becomes politicized to the degree that he hatches a major slave revolt that results in the murder of more than 50 whites and eventually the execution of 200-plus slaves who took part — including Turner whose brutal and sickening death thankfully is not depicted as graphically as it could be. A rape scene also is uncomfortable to watch for many reasons.
Parker has done a great job in casting the film, getting a strong performance from Hammer and nice work from Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Aja Naomi King, Penelope Ann Miller, Gabrielle Union and Jackie Earle Haley. Producers in addition to Parker on the very low-budget film are Kevin Turen, Jason Michael Berman, Aaron Gilbert and Preston Holmes. It will be interesting to see how paying audiences respond to a film that aims to be great but falls frustratingly short. However, if it can spark a conversation and open communication in a society clearly still torn by racial strife, it will have been well worth the effort just for that alone. Fox Searchlight releases the film in 2,100 theaters beginning Friday.
Do you plan to see The Birth of a Nation? Let us know what you think.