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Review: The Birth of a Nation (2016)

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

Directed by: Nate Parker

Premise: Based on the true story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a slave held on a cotton plantation in the antebellum south. In addition to working in the fields, Turner was also a preacher and his religious studies and the oppression of slavery led him to incite a slave rebellion.

What Works: The Birth of a Nation is a movie in the tradition of titles like Braveheart and Glory. It is the same kind of historical action-oriented story about people who seize their moment to strike a blow for freedom and make history. As that kind of movie, The Birth of a Nation is well executed. Nate Parker, who wrote, directed, and stars in the film, has a skill for pushing the audience’s emotional buttons. This is a visceral picture that is unpleasant in the right way as it recreates the horrors of slavery until the characters and the audience achieve a “just rage” that gives the rebel slaves the moral high ground and allows the viewer to cheer on the violence of the climax. The Birth of a Nation is extremely well made and has some striking images. The violence against the slaves is depicted in a way that gives full stock of the horror but in a way that remains accessible to a mainstream audience. Parker shows good sense of how far he can push without losing the viewer. As a historical piece, The Birth of a Nation has great period detail. The locations look like organic places (as opposed to the artificiality of a movie set) and the costumes and props have a lived-in texture. Especially notable is the makeup work on the actors. The cast of The Birth of a Nation are scarred and sweaty and have the unattractiveness that’s appropriate to their time period. These details put the audience in the historical moment and give the movie a lot of credibility. As a historical film, The Birth of a Nation is also interesting as a political work. There is something subversive about making a populist freedom fighter movie about a slave uprising, especially in the current political climate, and the film balances its political awareness with a mandate to entertain the audience. But the purpose of making a historical film is to connect the past with the present and there is a lot here that is relevant to our own time be it the Black Lives Matter movement or the way religious texts are used to justify oppression or the way people are radicalized to join in violent crusades.

What Doesn’t: Although it is an independent film, The Birth of a Nation is very much a Hollywood movie. The influence of filmmakers Edward Zwick and Mel Gibson are evident throughout this picture especially in the way that The Birth of a Nation crafts Nat Turner into an accessible heroic figure in much the same way that Gibson did with William Wallace in Braveheart. But, as is often the case, the commercial qualities of The Birth of a Nation mute the film’s impact and dull the edge inherent to the subject matter. This film simplifies a complicated subject. In history, Turner and his allies killed not only the slave masters and the field overseers but also the children of their oppressors. And, as most viewers will know going into the movie, the rebellion was a failure that resulted in tremendous repercussions against African Americans of that time—both free and enslaved—putting the whole justification for the revolt into question. There is also reason to believe that Turner was at least delusional if not outright mentally unstable as he claimed to have visions and be the recipient of divine instructions. Some of this is in the film (although notably not the massacre of children) but it is presented in a way that eludes any kind of moral complexity. The Nat Turner of The Birth of a Nation is a rather generic protagonist in the mold of any number of historical action heroes and the film avoids the most interesting aspects of this man and the event he inspired. As a result, The Birth of a Nation is not as subversive as it could be.

Bottom Line: The Birth of a Nation is a well-crafted picture that succeeds as a historical drama. It is in many ways a conventional, mainstream movie and it has nothing on Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. But it is successful as a commercial project, which is exactly what it’s trying to be.

Episode: #616 (October 16, 2016)