THE BIRTH OF A NATION
By Nathan Evans
Much like the controversy surrounding its creator, Nate Parker’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’ is a complicated film. The story revolves around little known historical figure Nat Turner, an educated slave who staged a rebellion against the slave owning community in Southhampton County, Virginia. As the film tells us, the rebellion only lasted for 48 hours and resulted in the deaths of around 60 plantation owners. In retaliation hundreds of slaves were murdered and Nat himself was hung and his corpse desecrated. Regardless of how one feels about Nat Turner’s story (considering today’s political and social climate, I’m guessing there are many out there that don’t feel too good about it) there’s no denying that it’s an important one; one that needs to be told, no matter who’s telling it.
As you may already know, the release of ‘The Birth of a Nation’ was hampered by rape allegations that were brought against the film’s writer, director, and star, Nate Parker, during his days as a student at Penn State University over a decade ago. After a lengthy trial, Parker was exonerated, but the verdict is still out for many in the court of public opinion. Whether or not Parker is actually guilty, I can’t say. I’ve done some reading on what happened and, like most cases, the situation is not black and white. The truth of the matter is no one but the people involved know what actually happened, so I’m not going to contribute my two cents on the subject, in fact after this, I’m not going to touch on the subject at all. I’m extending the same courtesy to Nate Parker that I would to Mel Gibson, Woody Allen, or Roman Polanski: I’m separating art from the artist and judging ‘The Birth of a Nation’ on its own merit. I invite you to do the same, not for the filmmaker, but for yourself.
‘The Birth of a Nation’ marks the birth of a visionary filmmaker and creative force in Nate Parker. Parker’s film is the most visually beautiful and accomplished I’ve seen all year. As we follow Turner’s life, Parker contrasts the harsh imagery associated with the antebellum south with the majesty of its landscape. When the film melds the two, the beauty with grim reality of slavery, we’re exposed to some of the most striking, challenging images I’ve ever seen in a film.
This is not an easy film to watch, but Parker’s performance as Nat Turner and Armie Hammer’s supporting performance as his owner, Samuel Turner, refuse to let the audience look away. Both men come as a surprise.
Personally, Parker came out of nowhere. I can’t recall seeing him in anything aside from a couple of half remembered supporting roles in films of little consequence. Hollywood has been trying and failing to make Armie Hammer a household name ever since his breakout dual role as the Winklevoss twins in David Fincher’s ‘Social Network’ a few years back. Here both of these actors shine.
Parker conveys Turner’s suppressed rage and despair perfectly and delivers a few impassioned speeches worthy of a ‘Best Actor’ Oscar nomination. Without much screen time or dialogue Hammer speaks volumes. Though the film rightly doesn’t focus on his story, we come to understand Samuel Turner’s unspoken, inherent aversion to slavery (which complicates things for a slaver) as well as his slackening grip on, not only his father’s plantation, but the slaves he relies on to make it run. There is very little exposition getting this across, Hammer does it all with his performance. He stands shoulder to shoulder with Parker and hopefully he’ll do the same when Oscar season rolls around.
Everything is tied together with some truly remarkable editing from Steven Rosenblum. Rather than suffering from some of the rough transitions that plague most biopics, Rosenblum conjures a few inventive tricks that bridge the gaps between, not only time, but thought; specifically Nat’s visions and dreams, which happen to be the most creatively thrilling moments I’ve seen in film in quite some time.
Of course nothing is perfect and ‘The Birth of a Nation’ is no exception. The film does run into some trouble at the end when Turner’s rebellion finally kicks into gear. Parker’s comment on the grisly violence Turner found necessary to make his rebellion work is unclear. Is he glorifying the increasingly garish acts Turner’s people perpetrated or is he simply shining a light on the ugliness of its necessity? I don’t know, and I’m not sure Parker does either. I have to believe that Turner would’ve been more conflicted by his actions than he appears here.
The film boasts a tremendous cast, but unfortunately, aside from Parker and Hammer, the supporting players aren’t given much to do. Much was made about Gabrielle Union’s involvement in the film, but she’’s not given a single line of dialogue and is only important in the terms of the terrible crimes that are perpetrated against her. She’s unfortunately wasted and the same goes for Jackie Earle Hailey; a gifted performer who’s career should be much larger than it is.
Further hampering the film are what I’ve dubbed “movie moments” that pop up infrequently throughout its runtime. These are the cliches that tend to occur again and again in biopics and slave epics: the wounded protagonist rising up against a whipping as dramatic music swells in the background or characters spouting prophetic dialogue concerning the destiny of the film’s hero. Parker does such a good job of making the film feel real that when these moments occur they cheapen the film’s overall impact. Luckily, with the exception of the film’s violence, the rest of the work is so strong here that these blemishes are barely worth mentioning.
Though I hope differently, I know that ‘The Birth of a Nation’ isn’t getting and probably won’t get the attention it deserves. Between the pervasive racism that sadly still exists today (which isn’t fair) and the controversy surrounding Parker himself (which may or may not be) there are many that aren’t going to give the film a chance. That’s unfortunate, because ‘The Birth of a Nation’ is one of the best films I’ve seen all year.
RATING: 5 OUT OF 5