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Reviews » Theatrical Reviews » The Birth of a Nation
The Birth of a Nation
Fox Searchlight Pictures // R // October 7, 2016
Review by Jeff Nelson | posted October 6, 2016 | E-mail the Author
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In a media landscape where the white perspective is heavily focused upon, the film festival circuit can offer a slightly more diverse sense of storytelling. Steve McQueen's gut-wrenching 12 Years a Slave made an impactful statement at the Telluride Film Festival, and ultimately went on to win three Oscars, including Best Picture. Nate Parker has crafted a film that tackles very similar themes, but tells a different, but equally as important story. However, where McQueen's film let out a furious roar across the industry, Parker's feature comes across as a shout that sounded a whole lot better in his head.

Based on the true story, Nat Turner (Nate Parker) was an enslaved Baptist preacher in Virginia in 1831. He was owned by Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), but was destined to be a leader. After witnessing the disgusting acts of slave owners, he could no longer stand silent. Nat ultimately orchestrated the slave uprising that would send shockwaves throughout the nation.

The film opens on a segment featuring foreshadowing that instantly causes The Birth of a Nation to feel more like a Hollywood-crafted feature than an independent motion picture. This scene features a "chosen one" segment that is far too on-the-nose. While inherent to what the man's religious beliefs were, the screenplay features it in a way that feels overly-produced. Once the film reaches Turner's adulthood, the audience is treated to some of the more rich elements that the story has to offer. Nat is exposed to the horrendous treatment of slaves under other masters, which instantly drives the character to more complex places. This is where the film's title truly makes its mark, as it refers to D.W. Griffith's epic, but utilizes a black symbol to represent patriotism and the beginning of what established America. This is where The Birth of a Nation thrives.

Parker certainly packs the two hour running time with as much information as possible, as he takes us on a journey beginning from Turner's childhood. At times, it feels like he bit off a bit more than he can chew, as his focus is ultimately a bit too scattered. While it's certainly racially charged, he spends a large portion of the feature highlighting religious salvation in a way that doesn't always connect to its central point. Then, he explores the romance between Turner and Cherry (Aja Naomi King), which is never entirely fleshed out. While we genuinely care for their well-being, their interactions feel bare. There are hints of good ideas in The Birth of a Nation, but the final product barely goes beyond the tip of the iceberg. It feels more like an abridged version, rather than a film that deeply explores Turner and the rebellion.

The feature's climax is surely what will garner the most attention. While all films depicting this subject matter are brutal, The Birth of a Nation puts a bloodbath in its drama. Once the rebellion is in full swing, Parker is sure to never spare us the details. However, this note of violence fits quite well into the overall tone of the film. This is the root of the feature's action sequences, as it displays a graphic depiction of rebellion that is rarely shown in this manner. The final few minutes may be a bit obvious, but it works. Even so, the film left me feeling a bit cold and distant from Nat Turner's story. 12 Years a Slave left me an absolute mess as the credits rolled, but I never felt as emotionally involved in this one.

The Birth of a Nation is greatly elevated by the performances. Nate Parker delivers an impactful portrayal of Nat Turner. His most powerful scene highlights his denial of slave owners using the Bible as a justification for slavery. Turner has an emotional intensity that demands our attention to the screen. However, Aja Naomi King's performance as Cherry is quite remarkable, as well. She's consistently convincing throughout the film's running time. There aren't any weak performances to be found here, although improvements to Nate Parker's direction could have greatly enhanced the chemistry between actors.

Unfortunately, it's incredibly clear that this is Parker's directorial feature debut. He makes an abundance of amateur mistakes, which pulls the audience out of the experience. From the first scene to the last, some of the emotional impact is removed due to choppy editing. Parker often has the actors act directly into the camera, rather than with each other. This becomes a persistent problem that takes the human element out of the chemistry in the performances. The cinematography has some inventive uses, especially through the interior shots, where slits of light in the barn are used to illuminate the scene.

All of the controversy aside, The Birth of a Nation is fine. But that's the thing, it's only fine; the Sundance chatter is overblown. While it remains captivating enough for its two hour duration, it feels like a mediocre version of the spectacular 12 Years a Slave. If you haven't seen that, you should skip this and go see that instead. Nate Parker and Aja Naomi King deliver powerful performances, but the screenplay tried to do far too much with its reasonably modest running time. Parker struggles to identify the main paths that he wants to explore, causing the overall film to feel a bit disjointed. There's an important story at the center, but it isn't told in the way it deserves to be. Nevertheless, it's still worth renting for those who are curious to see what all of the hype was about. The Birth of a Nation isn't the emergence of anything new; it's just the continuation of middle-of-the-road dramatic biopics revolving around the slave rebellion. Rent it.

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