Review: The Birth of a Nation
Set in the 1830s in the South, this is the story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker) a humble wannabe preacher whose slow-burn outrage towards slave masters’ ghastly treatment of African slaves eventually boils over into starting a slave revolt. Armie Hammer plays the well-meaning but highly pressured slave master who nonetheless imparts on Nat their different stations in life. Penelope Ann Miller plays Hammer’s mother, who educated Nat in reading and writing as a child. Jackie Earle Haley plays a sadistic and ruthless white policeman, whilst Mark Boone Junior plays a white preacher, and Gabrielle Union appears briefly as a slave who is assaulted.
Although I will confess to not overly liking him as an actor to begin with, I had hoped to separate art from the artist with this 2016 vanity project from filmmaker/actor Nate Parker. Unfortunately, the one-time accused rapist and his fellow scribe Jean McGianni Celestin (I won’t go into the details, you can Google that, but Parker was eventually acquitted), have not only cast a real-life rape survivor in actress Gabrielle Union in a small role, but for this supposedly true story, Parker has bizarrely invented a rape scene out of thin air. It’s not from historical account, and it presents Parker’s character Nat Turner as a man motivated to seek vengeance because of the rape of his wife. Yep, Nate Parker (who also said some completely idiotic things about refusing to play gay characters to ‘preserve the African-American male’- What?!) plays the avenger of a rape victim. I’m sorry, but it’s too weird and on-the-nose for me not to have the real-life issues on my mind here. I mean, what the fuck? You have to feel particularly sorry for Union, a rape survivor being put in the unenviable task of fielding questions on Parker’s past (which she had been previously unaware of) and trying to find a balance between defending a film and making sure not to defend Parker’s previous behaviour. I hate that she was even put in that position, because there was no way to win. But y’know what? That’s about all I have to say about the off-screen stuff, because the film itself is ordinary and wouldn’t be easy to champion even if Parker were squeaky clean.
Slavery is obviously a very valid and important subject, but this film proves what I’ve thought for a long time: The landmark miniseries “Roots” for me was the be all and end all on the subject, subsequent stories brought to either the small or big screen about slavery have mostly proven vastly inferior and unable to find new or interesting wrinkles within the subject (Including the just OK “12 Years a Slave” and the tedious and overrated recent remake of “Roots”). Weird as it may sound, I’d say Tarantino’s slightly irreverent “Django Unchained”, his best and most mature film to date, has been the one main exception. This is awfully familiar, sometimes stiff and unconvincing stuff. Being based on truth is no excuse to basically give us the same story over and over, and there’s just not enough new material here. The only new wrinkle here is the slave rebellion itself, and the film is half over by that point, possibly even later than that. Why does everyone talk about the off-screen stuff rather than the film itself? Because the film isn’t especially memorable. It has a clever re-appropriation of a very infamously pro KKK film title, but the film itself isn’t really worthy of such cleverness. If it had been, we may have had a film to replace and to an extent erase that landmark (but racist) 1915 ‘epic’ from public consciousness. No dice, however.
This film is choppy and hurried, there’s not flow to the storytelling. It’s fairly unconvincingly acted too, with the normally solid Mark Boone Junior surprisingly awful (seemingly under the impression he’s playing a bizarrely white Uncle Remus or something), and Armie Hammer isn’t having his finest hour trying to act from behind his unconvincing and ridiculously fake teeth. However, Penelope Ann Miller and especially Roger Guenveur Smith and Jackie Earle Haley are solid enough in support. Haley seems to excel at playing the worst elements of humanity (Speaking of the inhumanity of man, the film’s post-script is truly an indictment on America at that point in history. Disgusting, really). Writer-director Parker proves himself to be rather wooden in the lead, though the director sure seems to be a fan of his star. He has one genuinely good anger-filled speechifyin’ moment, but with every speech after that (and there’s several), Parker’s performance rings hollow. In addition to being bland, I actually don’t think he’s a very good actor. He probably should’ve cast someone with more screen presence and gravitas (and far less ego) for such an important role. How much ego does Parker have? Just look at the scene where a character has been brutalised and talks to Parker about their ordeal…all we really see is Parker’s face in the scene, not much of the other person. Yeah, it’s all about you, Nate. Except it’s not, it’s about the victim, you jerk (Feel free to read between the lines if you wish there). I know he’s playing the main character and it inspires his character to do what he does, but come on. That’s just egotism run amok in subject matter that deserves more seriousness and maturity.
A film of stunning imagery (it’s one of the year’s best-looking films) but nothing especially new or insightful to say. Just because this is someone’s real story and it’s an important subject in general, does not automatically make a film great or important. Slavery needs to be discussed over and over again, but that doesn’t mean every single story about slavery is worthy of having a film based on it. This is thoroughly ordinary, and Parker isn’t especially persuasive in the lead. For a film with so much off-screen controversy, it’s surprisingly ho-hum. The African drum score by Henry Jackman (“Big Hero 6”, “Kingsman: The Secret Service”) is awfully on the nose, I can’t believe an African-American filmmaker would green-light such a stereotyped score in 2016.