Log in

No account? Create an account
entries friends calendar profile Previous Previous Next Next
The Birth of a Nation - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
The Birth of a Nation
Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B+

If there ever were a movie that represents the messiness of history, it's The Birth of a Nation. This could just as easily be said of the widely acclaimed yet notoriously racist film of 1915, and this one of the same name being released 101 years later -- just for obviously very different reasons. Calling his movie based on the true story of a slave rebellion The Birth of a Nation is certainly the ballsiest thing Nate Parker has done with it.

Will this movie still be remembered 101 years from now? Probably not. One could make the case that it should be. But, unlike its 1915 namesake, this movie breaks no new technical ground. This one is all about content -- and it's not easy to contend with. It's easy to say that's what makes it worth watching. I suppose it also begs the question, at least for white audiences, whether it's just a means for soothing white guilt. Another question: does it matter?

Parker has a clear vision here: he directed, wrote the script, and stars as Nat Turner, the devout preacher-slave who led a 48-hour rebellion in 1831 that resulted in the killing of around 60 slave owners and their families. His film touches on, but does not dwell on, the between 100 and 200 Black people, slave and free alike, who were killed in retaliation. The famously chilling song "Strange Fruit" has been used pointedly on many occasion, but it's especially effective here.

There is an intriguing moral ambiguity to this story. Turner is a rarity in his world. Discovering his interest in reading, one of the slave owners, Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller), teaches him to read -- starting with the Bible. He thus grows into a preacher as a young man, and ultimately Elizabeth's son Samuel (Armie Hammer), who has known Nat since their youth, takes him to surrounding estates to preach other slaves into behaving. Since Nat is a slave, Samuel is the one given payment for this service.

Moral ambiguity abounds all around: Samuel seems to have a genuine affection for Nat, but there should be no mistaking the true nature of their relationship. Some might see Samuel's behavior late in the film as a betrayal, but it merely follows that these events would unfold. And then there's Nat's detailed knowledge of scripture: he notes that for every passage used to justify slavery, he can find another condemning it. And then, after witnessing too many horrors while making the rounds as a borrowed preacher, Nat takes this point to gruesome extremes.

Mind you, The Birth of a Nation takes its time, maybe half the film or more, establishing these characters, letting us see who they are, their circumstances, and where they're coming from. Nat Turner is presented as a decent man, swayed into action by being witness to horrible acts, including against his wife (Aja Naomi King). Nate Parker takes a curious tack here: he is very selective about what horrors are depicted onscreen. It's worth noting that although we certainly know the nature of the attack against Nat's wife, we only see the aftermath of it, not the act itself. We see her in bed, her face swollen beyond recognition. Nat sits by her side, and we are to understand that this incident is a huge part of his feeling called by God to get his revenge.

And get his revenge he does. Several of the attacks made my slaves, as led by Nat Turner, are where The Birth of a Nation actually gets a bit more graphic. In one case, I actually said "Oh my god!" out loud. How are we supposed to feel about this exactly, anyway? That uncertainty is this film's great strength. This is a historical incident that actually happened. One might feel it's understandable how it came to this. There is great integrity in a refusal to provide tidy answers to messy historical events. We should indeed be aware that this happened, though.

Narratively speaking, this movie is far from seamless. It feels in keeping with its themes. Nate Parker himself provides a worthy focal point: his performance is what carries the film. As an actor and as a director, this man is a force to be reckoned with. The same goes for the movie itself: it lacks polish, to a degree. But it should still be reckoned with.

Nate Parker (center) leads a slave rebellion in THE BIRTH OF A NATION.

Overall: B+
Leave a comment