Nate Parker’s directorial debut has been steeped in conversation since its premiere at Sundance. First it was a conversation of high praise: standing ovations and the timely antidote to #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Then, it became a conversation of divisive controversy involving the personal life of the director himself. What is most important in this roller coaster conversation should be the film itself. So let’s talk about that.
Nat Turner (Parker) is a slave in 19th century Virginia. The film, however, is more readily powerful when it zooms in on the atmosphere of the time and place rather than on Turner’s story. A scene opening on a closeup shot of a hole in an escaped slave’s head, pictaresque landscape shots of vast cotton fields, and the like are highlight moments that show the film’s passionate rigor. Other images, such as one of two newly-wed characters sitting naked on either side of dual burning candles, is far too staged for a film attempting at realism.
This is perhaps the most glaring issue of The Birth of a Nation. The film is, by design, a hard film to watch. Its grotesquery, though, is less substantive and more for shock value. Much of it is not narratively motivated, thrown in haphazardly as a means to an end (an end that is rather obvious and thus grossly superficial: that slavery is bad).
At the same time, many shots in the film are working on visual cliches that are frustrating to behold. Dreamlike imagery of angels above play too pivotal a role in the visual narrative. The more glossy visuals clash with the violent diversions that the story takes.
Parker himself is strong as Turner, the ever-present stoicism a good match for the brief outbursts of passion. Armie Hammer and Aja Naomi King too have their moments—a small role by Gabrielle Union is harrowing—but it is Parker’s show from front to end, for better or worse.
The Birth of a Nation is intense, at times powerful. It is also over-dramatized in scripting, soundtrack, visual composition, and acting. It doesn’t quite know whether to be glossy or visceral, so it attempts to be both at once, to the film’s detriment.
The Birth of a Nation: C+
The Birth of a Nation is the latest film to become victim to the magnificent hype-machine. It is a mediocre film that was dressed up in press and festival screenings that made it seem like the next Best Picture winner. The hype makes the product more disappointing, but this film is not a colossal failure. It just isn’t a masterpiece, either.
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)