The Birth of a Nation and all the images you see in this review are owned by Fox Searchlight Pictures
Directed by Nate Parker
To tell you the truth, I was not looking forward to seeing this and was up until the last minute figuring out if I wanted to take a pass on this considering the controversy surrounding the filmmaker’s past deeds. Ultimately, I am a film critic and decided that I might as well have an informed opinion on something rather than avoiding the topic. Not to say that someone choosing not to see this is making the wrong choice as it’s not anyone’s place to tell anyone else what to go see at the theater (I avoided that last Dinesh D’Souza film like the plague despite it sticking around for an embarrassingly long time at one of the theaters I frequent), rather I’m just letting you know what my reason was for deciding to review this film. Does it manage to be a great film even with the controversies surrounding it, or will this be so bad that we can easily dismiss the film and its director? Let’s find out!!
The movie is about the life of Nat Turner (Nate Parker who also writes, directs, and produces) who famously led a slave rebellion in 1831 that killed a bunch of slave owners before… well go read the Wikipedia page or watch the movie to find out what happened. But what about his life BEFORE killing white people? What drove the man to commit such acts of violence, especially considering how deeply religious he was? After all, wasn’t one of the commandments THOUGH SHALL NOT KILL? Well we get those answers as the rebellion itself is the climax to a character study of one man who faced indignity after indignity throughout his entire life and even saw it first hand when his master (Armie Hammer) had him go around to other plantations to preach the word of God to those slaves to keep them nice and complacent rather than rebellious and stabby. What other challenges did Nat have to face before turning to the sword? Well, you’ll just have to see the movie to find out!
This movie is pretty solid and it has its heart in the right place, but for a multitude of reasons it feels held back by its writer, director, star, Nate Parker. Look, there’s a lot to say about this guy and how we should feel about him and his creative output (I’m certainly going to bring that up here), and dancing around the fact that he raped a woman in 1999 and got away with it (which is a whole can of worms in and of itself about rape culture and how ingrained it is even in our justice system) isn’t gonna help anyone. Lots of piece of shit assholes make movies, and some of them even make great movies. There’s no way of avoiding his personal history when talking about this movie, especially when the end product is so unequivocally a passion project and a startling insight into the mind of its creator (as is the case with most writer, director, star movies) but whether or not you should see the movie or not based on that history and his crime is honestly too personal of a choice for me to tell someone one way or the other in this review. I’ll do my best to be as honest about my own reaction to this movie as I can which is all I can really do as a critic and a fan of movies, and what it comes down to is that Nate Parker, even if him being a rapist wasn’t part of the equation, is not ready for the big leagues as far as movies go and clearly has some issues he should work out if he wants to be as highly regarded of a filmmaker as he clearly sees himself to be. He wants to be a critically acclaimed filmmaker, but his approach feels too calculated for the most part, and it’s only at the points where he DOESN’T try to go for the Oscar where the movie comes to life. They say you can’t sit down and decide to write the Great American Novel as it’s something that just happens, and while that may not exactly apply to movie (Harvey Weinstein’s been milking the Academy for decades now) it’s an apt metaphor for what this movie ultimately is. Its Oscar bait with the sole intention of winning awards, and it’s not doing a great job of it. However, it’s still shot very well, has some solid acting from the cast, and it’s impossible to ignore the powerful imagery and dark subject matter that we’re being forced us to watch on screen. Will he be a great director one day? Who knows, but for now this is more interesting due to the circumstances of its own existence than as a film and story unto itself. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I doubt that’s what Nate Parker was going for.
So I’ve mentioned that one of the big problems here is the Oscar bait moments, but what exactly does that mean? For this movie, it mostly boils down to safe and predictable character moments and story beats that only serve to aggrandize it’s star as a Messianic figure, and while most of these issues are prominent throughout the first act, they do bleed into the rest of the story which makes it hard to fully invest in what’s going on. The movie takes itself so unbelievably seriously throughout its run time that it only shines a light on Nate Parker’s less than polished direction which makes things either REALLY funny at points or uncomfortably awkward during scenes that he was hoping we’d be in awe over. The movie manages to be effective whenever it gets to the grim and grittier aspects of slavery which is primarily what the second act is comprised of, but the first act just meanders and doesn’t have a lot to say other than to give the most sterile of a backstory to Nat’s upbringing. Well… that and the SUPER awkward romance between Nat and Cherry, but we’ll get into the movie’s women problem soon enough. It’s tolerable for the first thirty minutes, but it feels like it’s just spinning its wheels and being really pretentious about it in the process.
Along with the wonky editing and boring first act, the script has some issues that give us fascinating insight into Nate Parker’s psyche but also drag this film down considerably. For one, the Messianic portray of Nat Turner feels less like a celebration of this African American hero and more like an excuse to let Nate Parker indulge his ego. Before we even see the title of the movie, there’s a scene that I still don’t fully understand where a five year old Nat is being told straight up that he’s going to grow up to be a great leader all because of a scar he has on his chest that makes it look like he has five nipples. As far as my minimal amount of research has uncovered, I have yet to find any evidence of this scar or it being of great significance in the real life story. This kind of stuff is all throughout the movie as everyone looks up to Nat even when he’s doing some pretty lousy stuff in the interest of self-preservation as well as the preservation of others, and the film does everything it can to erase any dimension from his character for the fear of making him less than an idealistic archetype. If you stick through the credits, you’ll see that Nate Parker has Mel Gibson listed as one of the many SPECIAL THANKS TO that this movie has, and it honestly makes sense considering the kind of movie that he made. This movie is ALL about the glorification of martyrdom, and even the absolution of moral shortcomings and guilt through personal suffering which is pretty clumsily used here. All of this is interesting fodder when talking about the director himself and even religious representation in movies, but it makes Nat seem distant and unrelatable as he can do no wrong and always maintains the moral high ground even when he shouldn’t.
Even worse than Nate’s interpretation of Nat as he wrote him in the script is the way he writes his female characters; something that goes from uncomfortable to offensive when you factor in his history. Now his mother and grandmother are fine in here and do have some solid scenes as Nat’s protectors and moral compass, but his wife Cherry played by Aja Naomi King has almost nothing to do here other than to play out the WOMEN IN REFRIGERATORS trope as a mean to spur Nat’s righteous fury. His use of rape in this movie is tasteless as there’s almost no attention paid to the women who are subjected to it and its rather a character building exercise for their male partners who we see being the most impacted by it. Nat’s wife gets hurt but she gets two or three scenes recovering from it while Nat gets further justification for his eventual actions as well as the big triumphant moment where he gets revenge on her behalf. In an era where female representation (especially black female representation) is such a vital thing for Hollywood to improve on, this feels lazy and cheap with the added bonus of distaste from Nate Turner handling the subject of rape so haphazardly; further indicating that he learned next to nothing from what he did in 1999.
Now there are good aspects of this movie, otherwise I wouldn’t recommend it. Once things start going, the film feels less like intentional manipulation for Oscar points and more like the kind of justified rage fueled film making that we were promised in the trailers and it does deliver on getting the audience angry and ready for blood. It also helps with Nat’s character who always comes across as an observer rather than a character, and while this is one the reasons the first act drags so much, it fits perfectly in the second act when he’s going around to plantations where the slaves have it much worse than he does and he gets a front row seat to level of cruelties even he never imagined (or at least never saw firsthand) during his own experience as someone else’s property. There’s some odd editing here and the transition from act two to act three feels really abrupt, but the horrific way we see some masters treat their slaves is what keeps the second act from getting too bogged down like the first act was. Once we get to the third act, that’s when things go completely insane and it is gloriously satisfying to watch the violence play out on screen against those who’ve been oppressors and monsters their entire lives. They even manage to have a modicum of nuance where one of the slaves tries to dispel Nat’s rebellion before it gets started by reminding him that leading by peace and love is the way of God rather than with the sword, and there is something to think about there. The movie does a good job of justifying the violence that the rebellion inflicts on the slave owners, but it doesn’t shy away from the nasty and graphic nature of it and the scenes play out more like a horror film than anything else. It just goes to show how powerful the images of slavery are that it can dehumanize the abusers to the point that a filmmaker can go all Jason Voorhees on their asses and remain confident that it won’t turn off movie goers. Also, the ending is perfect with the imagery Nate Parker chooses to evoke, and that final shot, while a bit cheesy, boosted this movie up quite a few points for me. This may not have been the best debut for Nate Parker as a director considering some of the sloppier moments in here, but he does show a lot of potential and hopefully it can be refined as he gets more experience behind the camera.
Do I think this is a good movie? Eh… sort of. It’s got a lot of power behind it, but its flaws are VERY obvious and it feels a bit amateurish in places. The guy has a lot of soul searching to do before I’d say he’s ready to make another movie and probably got thrust into the big leagues too early simply because he had made the right movie at the right time; regardless of the quality of the film or his own personal shortcomings that he hasn’t really confronted in earnest. Should you see the movie? That’s entirely up to you and I’m pretty sure there isn’t a wrong way to react to this. If you are interested in seeing this, I still wouldn’t quite recommend it as a theater experience, but it’ll be worth checking out at some point. If nothing else, watching this on Netflix wouldn’t be giving money directly to the studio the same way as buying a ticket or a blu ray would. That’s something at least, right?
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