“Birth of a Nation” is a flawed, but mesmerizing film

Courtesy of Foxlight Pictures
Courtesy of Foxlight Pictures

Generally, film reviews are pretty standard: A writer gives an argument for why a certain film is worth watching or not, and then rates said film on a scale from one to 10. However, sometimes this format becomes problematic, especially when it comes to films such as “Birth of a Nation” — this film is many things: Overly sentimental, frustrating, gruesome, heart-wrenching, bloated.

Directed by Nate Parker, “Birth of a Nation” depicts the events of the Nat Turner slave rebellion which rocked Virginia in the 1860s. Turner was a literate slave and black preacher who organized a rebellion in the antebellum South. There is an added resonance here. The title “Birth of a Nation” is also the title of a 1915 silent film by D.W. Griffith which infamously depicts the Ku Klux Klan in a favorable light. Parker, in a literal sense, flips the script, completely altering the perspective to center on the violence and slavery’s degrading legacy of abuse. The allusiveness of the title directly challenges the  blatant racism depicted by Griffith’s silent film.

However, while Parker posits that “The Birth of a Nation” is a story about a slave rebellion, the narrative is more of a biopic of Nat Turner (played by Nate Parker himself) — the opening sequence begins with a young Turner’s mother taking him to a prophet in the forest who claims that Turner will go on to be a leader for his people. This prophecy, of course, comes true when Turner becomes the first literate slave on his plantation, and becomes a preacher for local slaves in Richmond. As the narrative progresses and Turner is exposed to the savagery of the slaveholders, he organizes a revolt for freedom by using religion to mobilize the slaves in Virginia.

And yet, for all of its conceptual qualities, “The Birth of a Nation” is still a weak film in execution. Besides Turner, no one else throughout the entire narrative has any interiority or development. Even his wife Cherry (played by Aja Naomi King) does not offer any complexity as a character. The dialogue between Turner and herself do not offer anything in terms of  her desires or ideas. The inclusion of her narrative adds a plot point, but outside of that, nothing else.

The cinematography is also lackluster: Very standard shots and grounding with almost half an hour’s worth of the camera panning to capture the southern landscape. The sheer amount of times we see the same landscape slows the pacing down. This is compounded by the score, which was absolutely atrocious. The entire score is overly sentimental and cliche, and comes in at predictable points. Throughout the film, the score — consisting mainly of violin and piano melodies — remains invisible, adding texture, but any moment of significance becomes immediately saturated by predictable and boring orchestral arrangements.

The main vehicle of complexity in the film is Parker’s excellent portrayal of Turner. His disgust at seeing a man mauled by dogs, his wife assaulted or two slaves force fed after having their teeth chiseled out, becomes the only emotional humanity displayed by any character. The depictions of violence and degradation throughout the film are felt by the audience through his pain and suffering. The brutality he sees is so visceral, the pain and horror so real.

That gets to the fundamental problem of critically assessing “The Birth of a Nation” — even if the execution of the conceptual ideas are weak, and the movie itself is structurally unsound, the pain and horror it depicts is so real. It makes one ashamed to know that such a miserable institution ever existed.

Rating: N/A


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