Friday, September 6, 2019

The Birth of a Nation (2016): A Review


The 1915 D.W. Griffith film The Birth of a Nation is simultaneously a brilliant piece of cinema and a revolting piece of trash. A century-plus later, writer/director/actor Nate Parker takes the title to one of film's turning points almost as a response to the elevation of the Ku Klux Klan for his own The Birth of a Nation. Putting aside the controversies that engulfed both Parker and the film, dooming whatever Oscar hopes both had, this The Birth of a Nation would have failed on its own, a poor telling of what should have been a much more compelling story.

Since his birth young slave Nat Turner was almost preordained for greatness. Even his owner Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller) sees it, going so far as to teach Nat to read (though he's allowed to read only one book, The Bible). 

However, Mrs. Turner's late husband declared Nat would be better suited to work as a field hand on the plantation, so off he goes. However, he is still endowed with great spiritual power to where he becomes the de facto preacher at the Turner plantation. His skills are so great that soon the white planters persuade Nat's owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) to essentially 'rent' Nat to preach to their own slaves.

Of course, Nat's preaching has an ulterior motive: to keep the slaves in line and have them think it is God's Will they be good and happy slaves. Sam takes Nat to the various plantations and appears shocked at how awful some of the other plantation owners are with their human chattel, but when Nat dares to baptize a white man, Sam has no problem having Nat whipped.

Nat, who by now has had a long marriage to Cherry-Ann (Aja Naomi King) and a daughter, senses he is God's elect, a new Moses to set His people free from bondage. Gathering a small group of fellow Turner slaves, he awaits for a sign from God. It comes when we have a solar eclipse, and with that, he begins his slave revolt by first killing Samuel.

It's a short rebellion, one that costs Nat Turner his life at the gallows.

Image result for the birth of a nation 2016What is curious about The Birth of a Nation is how remarkably quiet it is. For a story that involves a revolt led by a powerful preacher who thought himself divinely appointed, the film is shockingly boring.

I think the fault lies squarely with Parker. He could have acted. He could have written. He could have directed. Somehow, he could not do all three. Parker's performance was rather weak. His Nat Turner is not a very compelling or charismatic figure. As played by Parker, this Nat Turner couldn't inspire a church raffle let alone a slave revolt. We are told Nat was a man of powerful oratory and an almost mystical connection to God, but it never shows up on screen.

There was a rather dull manner to Parker's Nat Turner, and somehow it seeped to almost every else's performance. I figure this is the result of Parker as director, for nearly the whole cast had a rather dull manner to them. Only King as Cherry-Ann had some spark to her, and The Birth of a Nation might have done well to focus on her versus her surprisingly dull husband.

In the secondary roles, Hammer was probably the worst. His Sam too was rather boring but there also seemed to be a sense that the film never decided whether he was a man of conscience or not. Sometimes he looked appalled and almost sympathetic to how other slaves were treated, defending Nat whenever he was attacked. Other times he seemed just as bad or even worse, such as when he had no problem having another slave's wife brought to keep a white visitor company.

Visually, The Birth of a Nation too suffered, with a lot of gray tones dominating save for when he paints the cotton fields as almost beautiful, which I find a bit bizarre. Parker seemed too interested in attempting to build up Nat Turner as this figure with almost mystical powers but apparently not bothering to show in any way how inspiring he was.

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It was bad enough that when he brings that group of slaves around a campfire to tell them how God was telling Nat to revolt, Parker's Nat looked more bored than fiery. The way that scene was shot however had me half-expected Nat Turner to say, "Submitted for the approval of The Midnight Society, I call this story 'The Birth of a Nation'".

The actual slave revolt was like much of the film itself: dry, boring, with whatever excitement such a story should have sucked out in some curious effort to be grand and epic. It is curious that the violence of both slavery and the slave revolt was somewhat played down, though to his credit Parker had a shocking moment of a slave force-fed by having said slave's teeth chiseled out. It was not overtly graphic but gave enough to leave a powerful after-effect.

Nat Turner should have made for a fascinating biopic. His story and that of his slave rebellion is one that should be better know. The Birth of a Nation however, does both of them wrong by being sluggish, with no sense that the Nat Turner on screen was a powerful man driven by visions from God to free His people. Hopefully, Nat Turner's story will get a better vehicle than this Birth of a Nation.

Nat Turner: 1800-1831


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