The Birth of a Nation (2016)
The Birth of a Nation (2016)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs.

Release Date: October 7th, 2016 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Nate Parker Actors: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Aja Naomi King, Gabrielle Union, Mark Boone Jr.

 


 

G

rowing up as a slave in the antebellum South, Nathaniel Turner (Nate Parker) witnesses the consistent hardships and numerous atrocities inflicted upon his family. When his abilities as a preacher and public speaker find his master Samuel (Armie Hammer) loaning him out to other plantations in an effort to quell the rebellious spirits of unruly slaves, Nat steadily realizes his true calling. Gathering together his oppressed brethren, the preacher leads the slaves in a desperate bid for freedom.

Education can be an important component of storytelling, but it’s a balancing act. Sacrificing entertainment for an educational message oftentimes results in monotony or overkill. Here, the message may be uncommonly potent, but it’s hammered home in such a sustained manner that audiences aren’t given an opportunity to enjoy any of it. Many films are difficult to watch due to imagery specifically designed to be thought-provoking or informative; “The Birth of a Nation” tries to be uncomfortable too routinely, which betrays its ability to be powerful. Like “12 Years a Slave” before it, the filmmakers have put so much effort into creating at least one incredibly memorable, absolutely revolting scene of violence – that viewers aren’t likely to walk away with anything other than the recollection of that individual sequence. This does an incredible disservice to the rest of the project, which contains undeniably moving material; a love story is sensational and the actual uprising is exhilarating. But when certain, small parts overwhelm the larger picture, the film becomes easier to dismiss.

And writer/director Nate Parker has crafted a significant work, which shouldn’t have buckled under the weight of its own choice moments. The acting is exceptional and the historical significance (no matter how exaggerated or creatively embellished) is unmissable. But instead of demonstrating that an inspirational, legendary leader can originate from an ordinary man, Turner is depicted as a prophet marked by the gods, which takes a bit away from his humble origins. Correspondingly, the hurdles he faces are typical, not unique to this narrative, made less thought-provoking than loathly when the grisly displays of barbarousness are so unrelenting. Little wins are mostly absent, while haunting imagery abounds. “God’s gonna punish whoever did this.”

Fortunately, time is spent on a worthy love story (with a single line of comedy for accompaniment), along with detailed family members to establish a perpetual fear for looming loss and tragedy. Fresh visions of hellish cruelties fuel brewing injustices that ever so slowly intensify to a monumental confrontation. Ironically, the greatest moments don’t include the convenient villain (Jackie Earle Haley) who personifies the brunt of the evilness (or the invented seconds of long-awaited revenge inflicted upon him), but rather the attack against Samuel, who is depicted with a certain sympathy toward his slaves, despite failing to wholeheartedly embrace the guilt or the reasoning that prevents him from severer disciplines. In the end, the crawling, agonizing build to a briefly climactic skirmish appears unmistakably fashioned after “Braveheart” but without a sense of satisfaction amidst all the morbidity. It can’t maintain momentum or poignancy, instead offering up only a depressing perspective on martyrdom and revolution.

– The Massie Twins

  • 6/10