Movie Review: THE BIRTH OF A NATION
Star Rating (out of 5): ***
What’s great about THE BIRTH OF A NATION is that it exists. Writer, director and star Nate Parker took a great many risks to bring the story of rebel leader Nat Turner to the screen and he deserves credit for that. What’s missing is… well, some lemonade.
Turner, the literate slave turned preacher who led dozens of Black men in a rebellion against their owners, is a fascinating character if there ever was one. Allowed to learn reading with his white owners’ Bible, Turner hoped for an improved life. Instead he found himself forced to subdue his own people by preaching a twisted message of obedience to them. His transformation from a man of God to the leader of a vengeful and utterly hopeless rebellion is painfully reminiscent of the struggle African Americans face to this day.
However great the story and its impact throughout history – Nate Parker’s film, while beautifully shot and impressively produced for its small budget, is far from great. Things start off pretty well with little Nat Turner’s tribal initiation, his early days on the plantation and his loss of innocence when his father is brutally killed. But as things progress, Parker’s narrative starts to meander, leaving too many loose ends. Nat’s master Sam (played by a subdued Armie Hammer) turns from a friend into a bitter enemy and the first target of his murderous wrath. A lot hangs on this relationship. Unfortunately we never get to witness Sam’s inner change.
The same is true for Nat’s own journey. Parker plays him as a man who from his earliest days has a strong seed of rebellion inside of him. He seems more concerned about portraying Nat Turner as a glorious hero from minute one, than to give him a strong arc – a journey involving failure, weakness and painful growth. Take, for example, his love story with Cherry (Aja Naomie King). Cherry starts off impressively, a defiant woman who won’t be subdued. But after Nat’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) cleans the new slave girl up and teaches her manners, Cherry is no challenge anymore. All Nat needs to do is bring her flowers, whisper sweet nothings into her ear, and she’s his willful, soft-spoken wifey for the rest of the movie. Nat’s mother and his friend’s wife Esther (Gabrielle Union) are placed in similarly subservient roles by Parker’s script. A bit of lemonade might have really helped here…
The key element of THE BIRTH OF A NATION is, of course, the Nat Turner rebellion. It begins over 90 minutes into the 2-hour-long film prompted by a speech rather than a compelling acceleration of dramatic events. The issue here is that Parker’s hero doesn’t present us with a vision. Neither his script nor his acting opens that intimate door into the heart of his character. We’re not allowed to truly feel what he is feeling or hope what he’s hoping for. We never understand his deepest fears, let alone get to experience them. Thus I found myself surprisingly unmoved as the tragic showdown of Nat Turner’s rebellion and execution unfolded.
Do I think you’ll love this film? No. Do I think you should go see it? Yes. Because the story it tackles is important and deserves our attention.
Review by CHRIS SILBER