Wait, which movie is this?
Ever since he was a little boy growing up on a slave plantation in the early 19th century, Nat Turner (Nate Parker), has always wanted to be more than just your typical slave. He was literate, could preach the word of God and most of all, saw himself as one with white people. However, little does he know that, outside of his plantation, where everything’s bad, but not awful, lies a cruel, dark and unforgiving world that doesn’t take kindly to black people, free or not. And Nat gets to witness a good portion of it, first-hand, when he and his owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), go out on a few trips where they stop at fellow slave plantations and Nat preaches the word of God. For some reason, the owners see this as a way for their own slaves to get riled up and do the work that they were “supposedly” put on this God’s-green Earth to do in the first place. But after witnessing one too many brutal acts of sadism, Nat decides that it’s time to turn the other cheek, gather up all of the other slaves that he’s come to know and love, and fight back.
A lot of the discussion about the Birth of a Nation, oddly enough, hasn’t been about the title, the movie’s depiction of slavery, its message, or hell, even whether or not it’s actually good and worth watching. Instead, it’s been all about what director/star/co-writer Nate Parker and co-writer
Jean McGianni Celestin did on that one fateful evening, nearly 17 years ago when they were students at Penn State. This review is not about what did, or didn’t happen, and whether or not Parker and Celestin are, or aren’t guilty of their supposed-crimes (even though Celestin did actually plead “guilty”, but that’s neither here, nor there) – in fact, it’s actually going to be about the movie itself, the Birth of a Nation.
And well, it deserves to be talked about. If not exactly for the reasons people imagine.
If there’s anything I have to give Nate Parker credit for here is that you can tell that there’s a fiery, burning-passion deep inside of him that makes this movie hit as hard as it should sometimes. By telling Nat’s story, especially from the literal beginning to the literal end, he’s giving us a small, but important tale of, sure, rebellion, but also of so much more. The tale is definitely about racism and how slavery was terrible, but it’s also a little bit about religion and the way in which slavers back in those days would use it to somehow justify all of their terrible wrong-doings.
Parker could definitely lean into the realm of preaching the masses (which Nat literally does), but he chooses not to; instead, he opts for keeping the focus on Nat, his story and his mission in his all-too short life. It’s a sad story, as most slave-tales are, but Parker shows that there could have been some hope in a dark and foreboding tale such as this. Even for all of his shortcomings as a director, writer and, yes, even human being, he’s still got something here that makes me interested in seeing what he has to do next, because he has a story that he wants to tell here and he doesn’t back down from getting into the nitty, the gritty and the downright vile of it all.
But at the same time, the movie is awfully troubled.
See, for one, it seems as if Nate Parker, the director, has a bit of work to do. A part of me feels the raw and inspired emotion coming from Parker’s direction, but a part of me also notices how much of that emotion seems to be getting in the way of actually creating a good movie, where there’s a nice narrative-flow and a compelling plot-line to make sense of, what with all of the terrible slave-stuff going on. The issue here is that Parker doesn’t seem all that focused; he has a lot to speak out against and say, but it never quite means anything.
There’s one great scene in which Nat has an argument with Mark Boone Junior’s preacher character, in which they literally battle one another with scripture-passages, showing how the other has misunderstood the message of the Bible and Jesus’ teaching. It’s brilliant, smart, tense, exciting, and most of all, important; it shows that the idea of slavery and the business of it all, while a very successful one at that, was based on a huge plain of lies. Parker uses this one scene, to show that he’s worthy of bringing on a discussion about this tale and what he’s got to tale, but the flip side of it all is that he doesn’t quite do much with that.
Instead, he sort of just leaves the scene there and focuses back on Nat Turner being a hero to us all.
In a way, I don’t argue with the movie in that respect; Nat Turner fought for what he believed in and was going to die if he had to. It’s an admirable act on his part, however, the movie seems to back away from discussing, or even shining a light on some of the more troubling aspects of his story. Like, say, for instance, how he uses the Bible as a way to justify his slaughtering of men, women and children (even if we don’t see the women and children actually killed on-camera here, although it did happen), or how there are literally two rapes that occur in this movie and, for some reason, they all seem to be made-up for the sake of adding some sort of theatrical tension that may not have already been there.
What’s odd about this is that it seems like all of Parker’s emotion and intensity in telling this story, also blinded him to the fact that Turner’s story is a lot more complicated than he thinks. Slaver was awful and Turner had to be around it his whole life, but at the same time, the movie doesn’t ever seem to present anyone, or anything else differently. Every slave-owner, with the exception of Armie Hammer’s Samuel, are dirty, foul-mouthed, drunk and always looking for a fight. Granted, there was quite a number of them in the far-superior 12 Years a Slave, but at least there was some humanity to them in that – here, they just seem like cartoons who haven’t bathed in decades.
That’s why, as a director, Nate Parker has a lot of work to do.
As a whole, the Birth of a Nation has a powerful story to work with, but the execution is surprisingly tame. Parker gets all wrapped-up in actually telling the story, once and for all, that he forgets how to actually construct a whole, feature-length film about it and loses track way too quickly. It’s a movie definitely worth seeing, but yeah, don’t believe the hype.
Consensus: While brave, the Birth of a Nation is a bit too messy to really hit as hard as it wants to, even if Nate Parker’s debut is an interesting one that makes him someone to keep an eye on.
7 / 10
Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire