The Birth of a Nation tells the story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker) a slave in Southampton County, Virginia. Nat is taken under the wing of Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller) and taught to read, which he uses to learn the Bible. Years later, Nat is still a field hand, but also a gifted preacher. His owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), has fallen on hard times and hears word that the other slave owners in the county would pay to have Nat preach specific scripture to their slaves. So, Samuel and Nat begin going plantation to plantation, preaching one-sided scripture to the slaves in the hopes of subduing their rising anger. What Nat witnesses while visiting the plantations changes his views, leading him to create a violent uprising against the slave owners.
Watching The Birth of a Nation, you can tell that this is a passion project from writer/director/lead actor Nate Parker. Unfortunately, the film somewhat fumbles through the story telling process. The pacing of the film is completely off-kilter, spending a majority of the time setting up the rebellion, then rushing to the credits. By the time the first hour passes, the entire audience knows what will be happening and why, but the film continues to drag its feet. If that time was spent developing characters other than Nat, it would have been interesting. The climax of The Birth of a Nation passes before you realize that it’s began, then it goes back to the slow (borderline boring) pace for the ending. Pacing aside, The Birth of a Nation toes the line of being cheesy throughout. Parker has taken a very serious subject matter and filled it with light comedy. The stark contrast between violence against slaves and Hallmark movie moments creates more confusion than anything. I was surprised by how much laughter came from the audience that I screened this with, especially when the content of the scenes aren’t intended to be funny.
The performances of The Birth of a Nation are a mixed bag. The leads seemed to be the weakest, while being upheld by phenomenal performances by the supporting cast. Parker’s Turner had its highs and lows; some of his scenes were powerfully acted and emotional, others fell flat and were almost awkward to watch. Armie Hammer did the best that he could, but was restricted by the complete lack of depth to his character. By the time the movie ended, his character barely mattered at all. However, the performances of Turner’s family (Esther Scott and Aunjanue Ellis) were wonderfully executed. Their excellent portrayals created a very human element behind the character of Turner. The same could be said for Turner’s love interest, Cherry (Aja Naomi King). She did a tremendous job, but was overshadowed by the immense amount of screen time that was occupied by Nate Parker.
Where this movie shines is its cinematography, thanks to Elliot Davis and a keen eye from Nate Parker. From beginning to end, The Birth of a Nation is visually captivating. Particularly during the climax of the film, the use of framing and lighting creates powerful imagery. This was easily one of the best aspects of the film. The music, unfortunately, didn’t have the same impact as the cinematography. It was an expected mix of gospel and spiritual songs, with the occasional heavenly chorus. While it certainly was relevant to the content and period of the movie, the soundtrack was forgettable and didn’t stand out at all.
The biggest flaw of The Birth of a Nation is its complete lack of subtlety. Nate Parker has a powerful message to deliver to audiences through this film and he makes damn sure that you don’t miss that message. The entire two hour runtime is spent bashing the audience over the head with the moral of the story. Not one person could ever walk out of The Birth of a Nation and think to themselves, “I think I liked that movie, but what did it mean?!” We all get it, Nate. We get it. Even in just building the character of Turner, there is absolutely no subtlety. It’s summed up in scene with a tribal man calling the young Nat a prophet, then repeatedly flashing the subtitle “We should listen to him!” over and over again. Not to mention the dream sequences and visions of angels, all of which contribute very little to the film. The Birth of a Nation is heavy-handed to the point of being obnoxious, which is a shame considering the dialogue it is trying to create is an important one.
The Birth of a Nation is a film filled with passion, there’s no doubt about that. Unfortunately, it’s riddled with flaws: thin characters with very little development, dreadful pacing, cheesy scenes and interactions, and a very heavy-handed approach to the subject matter. The Birth of a Nation is wonderfully shot and has a tremendous effort from the supporting cast, but it’s clumsily executed and the leading roles leave much to be desired. The story is driven through sheer emotion, but it is outweighed by the multitude of flaws. I feel that The Birth of a Nation could have been an incredible movie, but it seems to have gotten wrapped up in trying too hard to be an incredible movie. The result is jumble of hit-and-miss aspects, a missed opportunity to make an important film.
The Birth of a Nation