Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller
Genre: Drama/ Biopic
Nat Turner (Parker) is a plantation slave, but thanks to his literacy and knowledge of the bible, his financially strained owner (Armie Hammer) accepts offers to allow Nat to preach at other plantations to subdue unruly slaves. However, as he witnesses atrocious ill-treatment, Nat organises an uprising.
There are two things about The Birth Of A Nation that give me immediate and unavoidable cynical thoughts; firstly, it shares the title of a very famous film but has seemingly nothing to do with it, and secondly, it is produced, written and directed by its leading actor.
As much as my immediate thought is that this is just yet another cynical marketing ploy, Nate Parker has explained that he chose the title “Ironically, but very much by design”, in an attempt to promote the same level of propaganda as D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, but in a completely opposite way.
Well, whether that is actually true or not, my second issue certainly seems the most prevalent as while watching The Birth of a Nation it does very much like a vanity piece in the same ilk as Braveheart. Now, I firmly believe that Nate Parker made The Birth of a Nation with only good intentions and a genuine passion for the subject matter. There is also no denying that it is a true story worth telling. There is however some irony in the fact that the film’s protagonist uses the bible as his guide, as for its entire two hours it does feel like Nate Parker uses some very basic ‘beginners guide to narrative cinema’ as his guide to making the film and is just unable to think outside the box. So many aspects of the film, from its overall narrative to individual scenes, just feel so overly clichéd and irritatingly predictable in their execution as it feels like Nate Parker is just ticking off some tick list from that said guide to making a narrative film. Maybe he should have just stuck to starring, and left the writing and directing to more experienced hands.
Now, The Birth of a Nation is by no means a bad film, the raw power of both the true story it is based on and also the obvious passion it is made with certainly make it watchable. However, due to being bogged down in severe narrative contrivance and cliché it is nowhere near as powerful or engaging as it should be. There are moments that should be gut-wrenchingly powerful, but because of how the narrative is presented, it all feels too predictable and all the emotional power feels very diluted. This is summed up by the film’s misguided and overly clichéd final shot.
Though Nate Parker may have written and directed some short films before, The Birth of a Nation just has too many of those ‘first feature length film problems’, (which I accept is a cliché in itself), as visually, the film is also not great either. The camerawork feels quite televisual at times, and the overall pacing of the film is not great either; the film is 120 minutes, but with more rigorous and effective editing could have easily been 90 and told the story more effectively. Some scenes are unnecessary, while others too long.
Though there is room for improvement on his writing and directing abilities, performance-wise Nate Parker delivers a passionate and committed performance as Nat Turner, and it is ultimately a performance that feels wasted. However, his performance does to some extent elevate the lacklustre filmmaking and make the film watchable at least. Likewise, the rest of the cast are all excellent.
The raw power of the true story and the obvious passion that The Birth of a Nation is made with certainly justify its existence as a film and make it watchable, but it all feels like unrealised potential, as in the hands of a more experienced filmmaker this could have been the film that the source material deserves.
Despite being made with obvious passion and being based on a powerful true story, thanks to its hideously clichéd narrative and vanity project feel, The Birth of a Nation is a watchable, but highly forgettable waste of a great story.