There’s a world of difference between ambition and a good film. Every filmmaker has a vision, has a hope they will make a transcendent piece of art but sometimes those ambitions get away. Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation resides in that frustrating state of purgatory.
As an actor, Parker has appeared in several films but The Birth of a Nation is his first as a writer and director (the script was co-written by Jean McGianni Celestin). The story of Nat Turner is a daring undertaking but Parker’s vision and determination doesn’t translate to the screen.
The story unfolds like a traditional biopic; we begin with Turner as a child and lead up to the rebellion that solidified his placement in history books. The bulk of the film is set in 1831, when Turner was a plantation slave. He was different then most. He had a much easier relationship with his master, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), was literate and led sermons.
Being able to read and having a uncommonly close relationship with his owner didn’t stop Turner from recognizing the unacceptable cruelty that surrounded him. He rallies other slaves and leads one of the bloodiest uprisings in history, pushing back against the owners who don’t think twice about doling out a hundred lashings.
Parker doesn’t shy away from showing the brutality of Turner’s rebellion but finds difficulty balancing it in with the rest of the film. The first hour-plus is slowly paced and rarely focused and then in the blink of an eye he is taking an ax to a master’s chest. Parker takes far too long to create tension or generate interest but, most importantly, he takes too long to find the passion in the story. The writing feels like a very unpolished first draft.
Conversely, his direction may be a little too polished. Parker includes numerous transition sequences with the hopes of flashing his filmmaking bona fides, trying to prove himself the daring newcomer. There are various snippets or brief scenes that don’t add to the overall story, which only beg the question of why they were included, giving The Birth of a Nation a less-than-subtle feel.
The Birth of a Nation made waves at Sundance when it was met with rapturous applause and bought by Fox Searchlight for a record-breaking $17.5 million. In January, the film was the answer to the two-year #OscarSoWhite issue. Is this a movie worthy of gold statues? Not a chance.
4 out of 10