"The Lord has spoken to me, visions of what's to come, a rise of good against evil."
So reviewing a movie that has become embroiled in about as much controversy and deals with as many bad discussion topics on a first date that you could possibly imagine, from race to religion, politics and even gender issues as well as the lionisation of history. As well as the fact that the film deals with slavery in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite scandal, as well as the fact that said film is named after the techinically innovative but overtly racist 1915 film by D.W Griffith. What could possibly go wrong with trying to review that?
In the Deep South of the USA, Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a literate slave and preacher, is used by his financially strained owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), to subdue unruly slaves with his preaching. As he witnesses countless atrocities against himself and his fellow slaves, Nat orchestrates an uprising in the hopes of leading his people to freedom.
So it is essentially impossible to critique this film without at the very least acknowledging the controversy surrounding it. First a bit of context, as the Oscars debate raged on the Sundance Film Festival took notice and distributors were sure to be attentive for any potential leaders in the race to bag the next Oscar contender from a black director or featuring a black cast. With ‘Birth of a Nation’ they seemed to find that film, and with Fox Searchlight putting in a record breaking bid for the distribution rights the public became intrigued and already had the film marked as a heavy awards favourite. The fact that the film was conceived by Nate Parker out of a frustration due to the lack of prominent roles for black actors in Hollywood made it seem like the perfect candidate.
However as the press circulated around the film due to its increasingly high profile as well as all of its stars, Parker’s personal life came into the spotlight. Without becoming embroiled in any sensitive issues (because the internet is great at doing that), having been accused of rape in 1999 and the case under some shady, at best, circumstances. This only served to make the whole situation drastically more complicated and while it’s easy to say “it’s about the art not the artist” (which is the excuse I use whenever I try to talk about how much I love ‘Chinatown’) given that Parker is so intrinsically linked with this production having starred in, directed and written by Parker, placing himself as the absolute hero of the story the already complex issue just got even more difficult to navigate.
So with that out of the way what about the movie itself? (Do you remember that, we were actually going to try and review a movie today wouldn’t you know?) Well for a film that was initially backed as being a revolutionary break through in the way these kind of stories are depicted on film, ‘Birth of a Nation’ is ultimately a fairly standard, competently made, melodramatic recreation of history that if it were any other film would probably be pegged as an Oscar contender not for its challenging nature but for it’s entertaining and occasionally inspiring values.
While ‘Birth of a Nation’ is telling an important story it doesn’t necessarily seek to create one that is complex or deep, coming across more as an ideological myth that paints its protagonist as an unquestionable hero rather than ever seeking to look beneath his skin. We have seen icons of history deconstructed in cinema before and the filmmakers were still able to maintain their inspiring and admirable status, if anything by viewing their flaws and weaknesses it made them more relatable to us as an audience. However the way Nat Turner is portrayed in ‘Birth of a Nation’ never really leaves room for that, while it gives us a strong characterisation and motivation that are by no means (or any means at all in fact) not justifiable, as a character he comes across as a proto-typical, two dimensional historical hero.
However we have seen this approach work before, one only needs to look to ‘Braveheart’ (and yes there is an irony in approaching Mel Gibson for clarity on an issue involving race)for a course of mythologizing a historical figure, filling it with heavy handed symbolism, crowd pleasing euphoria in its message and an uplifting if not extremely brutal relating to warfare and freedom. However where Gibson’s film was superbly directed feature, Parker’s feel for the camera isn’t nearly as polished or perfect. While he is competent enough for the battle sequences and moments of high drama that become visceral and shockingly violent in their depiction of warfare, the moments in between are not nearly as well thought out or executed. The result is a story that not only feels tonally uneven in the way it is directed, but also unstable due to how it tries to mesh scenes of high stakes warfare and contemplative seriousness. Not only that but due to the characters lacking a significant amount of depth they become less compelling and we are given less reason to care for these moments.
In fact much of that summarises Parker’s entire involvement in the film from his acting, directing and writing as well as the movie itself. During the scenes when it tries to emphasise the mythic importance of Turner and his historical importance such as rousing speeches, noble sacrifices and fearless leadership, everything works at its best with plenty of evocative imagery and inspiring dramatic moments to support it. However, during its quitter moments the components lack the depth, innovativeness or substance to make the film engaging on a more profound and humane level.
An important story with an imperfect execution.