The Birth of a Nation (2016) Movie Review

Tackling a subject depicting a horrific time in history is never an easy feat.  Reviewing the film has its challenges as well.  The trick is to not let the subject matter, no matter how important it might be, completely overtake the idea of masterful story telling. For every thought-provoking and powerful SCHINDLER’S LIST or 12 YEAR’S A SLAVE, there’s also a rather inaccurate FREE STATE OF JONES.  Thankfully, THE BIRTH OF A NATION is much better than the latter but not quite to the impactful level as the former two.

Nate Parker in The Birth of a Nation

THE BIRTH OF A NATION follows Nat Turner (Nate Parker) who is a slave taught to read as a child and given the only book a person of color is allowed to own – the Bible.  As a preacher to fellow slaves, other slaveholders desire to purchase Nat’s services from his owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer). The intent is to keep their slaves in order, encouraging them to obey their earthly masters.  Nat’s exposure to the malicious pain and suffering toward other slaves, including himself, sets in motion a change in himself before orchestrating an uprising in the hopes of leading his people to freedom.

Nate Parker in The Birth of a Nation

THE BIRTH OF A NATION’s exploration of slave owners exploiting the Bible for their personal gain to continue their vicious, oppressive treatment of blacks like livestock is excruciating. Nat’s internal struggle in knowing and believing the Word of God and being dictated on how to use is the film’s highlight and an aspect I haven’t seen quite like this on screen.  While there are a few emotionally charged, visually strong artistic moments, the film mostly lacks originality compared to what other great films have captured before it.  It never quite reaches the heights of its recent predecessors, to a lesser extent, mixing the powerfully moving and captivating struggle from 12 YEAR’S A SLAVE with the understandably blood thirsty revenge of DJANGO UNCHAINED. The revolt relies on familiar Hollywood tropes – dramatically lined up and charging the enemy, meeting the specific villain in the center of battle, and struggling with the out of reach weapon to name a few.

Director, writer, and star Nate Parker purposely named THE BIRTH OF A NATION after D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist, Ku Klux Klan propaganda film in order to reclaim the title and re-purpose it as a tool to challenge racism in America. While that film is still hailed for its technical ingenuity at the time, it is shockingly and absurdly racist, encouraging white supremacy. I appreciate Parker’s intentions to create change.

Nate Parker in The Birth of a Nation

After winning the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance Film Festival, THE BIRTH OF A NATION has had all the right buzz making it an early Oscar favorite before most people had even seen it.  After last year’s Oscar controversy over the the fact that no one of color was nominated in the actor categories (#OscarsSoWhite), I figured this film, good or bad, would be the one to take home most of the awards as a symbol from the Academy trying to right their perceived wrong. Since then, information about a reported rape accusation that Parker and his writing partner Jean McGianni Celestin were acquitted from in 1999 and the alleged victim’s recent tragic suicide surfaced. With all this hype and controversy surrounding the film, it’s tough to separate and somewhat trivial to simply ask if this is a great film or not.

THE BIRTH OF A NATION is a meaningful and timely piece of cinema, reflecting current race issues that are unfortunately still going on today. The thematic issues dealing with faith and the Bible are the films strongest points, while its graphic violence and offscreen rape scenes might affect some viewers more than others. The film is different than what I was expecting in that it was similar to what I’ve seen before.  Outside of being emotionally saddened and disgusted at this time in American history, THE BIRTH OF A NATION doesn’t quite do enough to propel itself as an elite film, but it is still a relevant one that has powerful moments.

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