The Birth of a Nation (2016)
When I first heard about this film I thought it would be a remake of the film from the early 1900’s. Having seen that film I was wondering how a film that sympathizes with the KKK could get remade in this day and age. Upon figuring out it was a different film based on Nat Turner’s rebellion and slave uprising I was cautious but interested to see what we would get. These types of films about a dark time in the country’s past could easily turn into films that intentionally play the emotion card and don’t have substance that can elevate the film elsewhere. This film also suffered a giant and negative downturn with Nate Parker’s rape allegations came to light right before the release of the film. There was a theory that all that negativity (which was well deserved) hurt the film as an award season contender. The controversy surrounding the film completely buried any buzz it could have generated. Having now seen the film I can say that the film is not worthy of award season praise, has a few flaws but overall had enjoyable moments.
The subject matter is heavy handed, of course. Nate Parker isn’t the greatest actor but he does well playing a slave preacher who becomes demoralized and outraged by the treatment of black people. The film features a slow build, almost too conservative. I’d say the film is ultimately uneven. Nat’s youth is covered in minor detail and you quickly shift to his adult years. A lot of the beginning feels inconsequential. And when a shocking event occurs in the film, it seems a bit glazed over (the rape in the film). The pace picks up in the middle when Nat’s owner attacks and whips him but then stalls again. At this point, we want to see the rebellion. I also could do without the visions that Nat’ experiences throughout the film. They seem artistic and seem to convey a message, but what is the message? Nat and young Nat meeting each other in a primitive state in the forest? Some of it just seems to be there for the sake of being there.
Once you edge towards the rebellion, its great. However, its too short. The action is violent, unforgiving, and relentless but then its gone. I wanted larger focus on the rebellion; if done right it could have been great. There’s a sense of longing in many places but I can’t fault a first time filmmaker too much for that. Prior to the film I absolutely expected the inclusion of the song “Strange Fruit” and no doubt it was there. It was used well with powerful images of the bodies of lynched slaves. The eventual final moments of Nat Turner are also done quite well. His fate is unfortunate but he is accepting of his legacy.
I don’t think the film satisfied me entirely. There are moments that absolutely could have been improved upon but ultimately I think Nat Turner’s rebellion is an important moment in our countries history and his story should be told. I think the approach could have been much better but we get a fairly good presentation of a really important matter. There are better films out there that cover stories of slavery with more conviction.