Review: Stinging ‘Birth of a Nation’ aims for gut
Nate Parker’s controversial film about Nat Turner’s slave revolt hits hard but doesn’t linger
Writer-director-star Nate Parker takes on a lot in “The Birth of a Nation,” his story of Nat Turner and the bloody slave rebellion he led in Virginia in 1831.
Where he succeeds is in his base story, which follows Turner as a young boy deemed a leader with wisdom, courage and vision. As an adult he becomes a preacher, spreading the gospel to slaves at the behest of owners who figure the word of God will make them more docile, and eventually inspires a movement that left 60 slave owners and family members butchered and 200 African Americans killed in retaliation.
Parker wants “The Birth of a Nation” to push, prod and provoke — even its title, a re-purposing of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film that made heroes out of the Ku Klux Klan, is a provocation. And while it does do those things, it stays grounded at a visceral level and is unable to rise above its own thirst for revenge.
That falls on the first-time director, who stages the eventual revolt using images that recall horror movies and midnight grindhouse shows. At a time when the connection should be pulsating, Parker makes it too easy for the audience to pull back as he revels in gorehound trash that is out of place with the tone of the film, which up to that point is mannered and measured. (A beheading and its aftermath is particularly indulgent.)
It dulls the overall effect of the film, which tells the story of an important and overlooked chapter in American history, one which still has relevance today. “The Birth of a Nation” still stings, but it doesn’t ascend to the level of art.
Comparisons to 2013 Best Picture winner “12 Years a Slave” are perhaps unfair, but Steve McQueen’s film was deeply unsettling in ways that stay with you years later. It’s a movie, in many ways, you never want to see again. “The Birth of a Nation” does not reach that peak; it’s more obvious and less cerebral. It’s the difference between good and extraordinary.
The story opens in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1809, where young Nat is raised on the Turner family plantation and is taught to read by Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller), who shares with him her Bible. He begins preaching, but Nat is soon sent to pick cotton in the field as Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) takes over the plantation from his father. Nat and Samuel grew up playing together and have a good relationship, and Samuel begins taking Nat to other plantations to preach to slaves (and collect fees for Nat’s appearances).
Nat convinces Samuel to purchase Cherry (Aja Naomi King) at an auction, and Nat and Cherry eventually fall in love, get married and have children. But when Cherry is attacked by a group of slave catchers (led by Jackie Earle Haley in snarling villain mode), Nat begins to plot his retaliation against those who wronged her, the increasingly corrupt and abusive Samuel and the entire system which is built to keep his people down.
As the movie reaches its boiling point, Parker must harness that slow-building cauldron of rage and bring it to a controlled burn, but it’s there where he starts losing steam and overdoing it with his touches (a “Braveheart”-like clash seems overly fantastical, a shot of a butterfly fluttering on a hanging body is too art-school precious).
The subject matter is incendiary and carries with it its own explosiveness. “The Birth of a Nation” aims for the gut and hits its target. Had it aimed a little higher, it might also have hit the mind, as well.
‘The Birth of a Nation’
Rated R for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity
Running time: 120 minutes