*WARNING: SPOILERS FOR A FILM BASED ON A TRUE STORY*
The Birth of a Nation is a film that is in the heat of a lot of controversy right now. If you’re unaware, Nate Parker, the person who directed, wrote, produced, and starred in the film was involved in a 1999 case wherein he and his friend were accused of rape. Parker was acquitted, his friend was found guilty but later acquitted on appeal. In 2012, the person accusing Parker and his friend of rape committed suicide. But completely ignoring that controversy, judging the art separate from the artist, The Birth of a Nation is still a controversial film for me; there’s parts of this film that I find fascinating, with smart imagery and interesting characters. There’s other parts that are boring, unsatisfactory, or just plain pretentious, particularly in the buildup.
The Birth of a Nation is the true story of Nat Turner, an enslaved African-American who lives his slave life by preaching to other slaves the word of the Bible. Often, these Bible passages he has learned to read are ones that giving slaves the impression that they must submit to their masters. However, over time, Nat Turner starts to get fed up, and slowly starts to get more and more insubordinate. Will Nat Turner rise up after living on his knees for so long?
Yeah, he will.
This was a film that had a lot of buzz coming out of Sundance this year, where it shook the crowd in wake of recent police shootings. Hearing about it makes it seem bold; it named itself after D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation, a film that is often taught to prospective film students for its innovative use of cuts, but is also heavily criticized for being a very racist movie. The title for the 2016 movie actually fits (more on that later). But the problem here is that the title is the boldest thing in the movie; it’s actually a very standard biopic instead of an innovative film that is not afraid to go against the norm.
The movie’s best moments come in visual form; despite most of the movie dropping expository dialogue, a sign of a lack of creativity, the film also has moments of imagery that manage to stick in the brain; most of these moments are subtle enough to not warrant a pretentious feel, such as a freshly pulled piece of corn bleeding dark red blood. They’re moody, visceral, and warrant discussion. However, some other images -- such as a man being killed in the foreground of a religious tapestry -- feel straight out of a CollegeHumor video, aiming for provocation but landing short and feeling pretentious.
But pretension isn't necessarily the greatest obstacle The Birth of a Nation fails to overcome: the movie has an excruciatingly slow buildup. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing -- A Brighter Summer Day is three and a half hours of buildup and it’s a masterpiece -- but that film’s buildup is interesting. Here it is not all needed. With slavery, we don’t need to see too much to understand a slave’s motivation. However, the change in Turner’s character doesn't feel realistic; he already seems on edge for the majority of the film, and we don’t get an idea of what truly pushes him over, either.
I feel like I may be going too hard on this movie. It’s certainly not all cliche -- the action scenes here are very short and never feel bloated -- and the title of the film, despite seemingly being a shot at the original film, also fits in the context of this film. The film ends with Nat Turner being hanged with the peanut gallery jeering at him. As he dies, we cut to a close-up of a small child watching Nat Turner dying. This idea of cutting to a child reacting to Nat Turner has been a prevalent thing throughout the movie, and it leaves us wondering until here, in which that child watching him die becomes an adult before our eyes. This adult is marching into battle during the Civil War. Nat Turner’s story is “the birth of a nation” because he has inspired the younger generations of slave children to fight for their freedom.
And then the credits tell you what I just inferred: they say that Nat Turner’s remains were flayed, beheaded, quartered, cut into pieces, and that it was all done to prevent Turner leaving a legacy. Right after you told me that he did.
So The Birth of a Nation is a movie that has something powerful to say, says it pretty well, and then undermines it through either:
The Birth of a Nation is stuck in a hole. It nearly gets out, but always trips and falls back down to that hole. The hole is not necessarily the worst hole you could be stuck in -- Buffalo Bill isn’t yelling about lotion at the top of it -- but, I mean, it’s still a hole.