The Birth of a Nation (2016) Film Review from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, a movie directed by Nate Parker, starring Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, and Gabrielle Union.
Director, screenwriter, and star Nate Parker‘s passion project, The Birth of a Nation, opens with the final sentence of a denunciation of slavery by Thomas Jefferson: “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.” So sets the tone for a film that isn’t shy about its aspirations to become the next 12 Years a Slave.
The film follows Nat Turner as he ascends the ranks of slavehood, from a child who was prophesied to be a leader of “wisdom, courage and vision” because of his body marks, to his master, Samuel Turner’s (Armie Hammer), right-hand man, to his legacy today: the leader of an 1831 Virginian slave rebellion.
The most interesting aspect of this true story is Nat’s rise to fame, really, as a Baptist preacher. His master’s wife, Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller), having been impressed with Nat’s elementary reading skills, took him under her wing and provided him with personalized tutoring at an early age. Having become quite acquainted with the contents of the Bible, Nat began to be hired by slaveowners in an exploitive bid to use scripture (i.e., Peter 2:18) to subdue their ever-increasingly agitated slaves. Realizing his way with the word, his ability to galvanize and lead a crowd, Nat resolves to use his talents to change the desperate, hellish lives of his fellow slaves.
Let this serve as a warning to viewers: the film expectedly depicts slavery in realistic, brutal fashion, no more so than when a slave has his teeth knocked out one-by-one with a mallet and an archaic feeding tube shoved down his throat in response to his non-violent hunger strike.
While the film serves an important purpose and evokes feelings of sympathy and shame for the country’s history, the film fails to escape the overwhelming feeling that it is trying too hard. Indeed, Parker has admitted that he is “an activist first and a filmmaker second” – and it shows. The film feels heavy-handed, signs of freshman filmmaking abound (short-shrift is given to many characters and situations), and the third act doesn’t quite reach the climactic heights he thinks it does. Parker must be applauded enthusiastically, however, for his conscious, activist reclaiming of the title of the film from its racist predecessor for a new millennium and generation.
One particularly frustrating aspect of the film (in contrast to 12 Years a Slave) is its moral certitude, its presenting of a hero lacking any flaws whatsoever, a hero who leads a rebellion that results in the indiscriminate deaths of sixty people by way of the axe. There is a vast richness in the morally ambiguous, but only when it is engaged and explored, when the questions are asked; Parker is apparently afraid or reluctant to ask the questions. That’s too bad, for neither our culture’s nor country’s heroes are perfect, nor is there any need for them to be. Indeed, many of America’s most-revered people are considered heroes because of their moral ambiguity and/or character flaws, a necessity when human beings try to upend the status quo.
Despite its shortcomings, The Birth of a Nation is more than a worthy addition to cinema’s canon of slavery, a must-see collection of films bringing to awareness and heightening our collective sensitivity to the repulsive sins of our forebears. And if Parker and Fox Searchlight (a formidable Oscar-campaigner) have their way, #OscarsSoWhite won’t be trending next year.
The Birth of a Nation is screening at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in the competitive U.S. Dramatic Competition category and was acquired by Fox Searchlight for a record-setting $17.5 million for a planned 2016 release and awards campaign.
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Image Source: Sundance Institute