The Birth of a Nation

Nat Turner, a literate slave and preacher in the antebellum South, orchestrates an uprising.

Director: Nate Parker

Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Jackie Earle Haley, Gabrielle Union, Aja Naomi King, Penelope Ann Miller

Rated: R (disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity)

 

The Birth of a Nation

By Cole Schneider

I first came across Nat Turner in 2009. His story—as a preacher leading a violent slave rebellion inspired by the unconscionable mistreatment he and his black brothers and sisters were forced to endure, and confirmed by multiple signs from God that he was to lead their liberation—was both captivating and ethically challenging. The more I researched his life and rebellion the more I grew in my empathy for him and the more difficult it became to hold onto my own moral philosophies. It is a story that engages the heart and the head, each significantly.

“The Birth of a Nation” finally brings this great story to the screen. It is, if nothing else, commendable to have preserved this on film. Yet, it’s also fair to question how well TBoaN preserves Turner’s story. I’m not generally one to be bothered by historical liberties in films. Not only are movies packaged in tidy two hour boxes, but there is a necessary creative freedom that goes along with re-creating a story. “Is this historically accurate?” isn’t a fair question to ask, but “What angle is this presentation taking?” is an essential question to ponder. In one very important historical liberty taken in TBoaN we see the narrative cheapened, reinforcing a sometimes bland retelling that stains the passion and complexity of Turner’s life and acts. Meanwhile, the one-dimensional characters within that plot cannot offset its mishandlings.

Still, this is a great story. Even fumbled and stilted as it is, it remains a must-watch for those uninitiated, regardless of race, religion, or creed. If you’ve liked “Spartacus” or “Braveheart” this is something closer to home for you to ruminate on.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

 

The Birth of a Nation

By Matt Greene

D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is a lightning rod of controversy in film history. Hugely influential in style and technique, it’s also deplorable in its celebration of the KKK. So when the true story of Nat Turner’s slave uprising was announced, its title of the same name was staggeringly subversive and bold. If only the film was as bold as its title. It’s a Babe Ruth movie: when it hits, it’s a homerun, but when it misses, it misses hard. In his directorial debut, Parker’s pretentious imagery, stale emotions, and flat characters overshadow the stronger elements of story and theme.

Turner’s story of outrage-turned-righteous-vengeance starts with the mundanity of these atrocities in the day-to-day, before erupting with justifiable violence. As an actor, Parker has an indelible presence onscreen; as a writer/director, he struggles. His thesis seems to be that in a violent world, sometimes all people can hear is violence (“To stand between the Lord and his people is a dangerous place to be.”). However, while the brutality he implements is often effectively sparse and palpable, it’s neither emotionally stirring enough (ala 12 Years a Slave), nor does it seem to have much interesting to say about vengeance (ala Django). Instead, we’re given forced Christ-imagery that serves to confuse more than inspire.

There are undeniably some moving moments in the film. Anytime Turner is preaching to other slaves is a stirring example of religious manipulation vs. conviction, and the conversations about God’s justice & love compellingly parallel Black Lives Matter concerns. Otherwise, it’s a fairly run-of-the-mill costume drama that too often feels like a “Key and Peele” sketch about awards-bait filmmaking.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

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