Movie Review: The Birth of a Nation

Nate Parker as "Nat Turner" in THE BIRTH OF A NATION. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Nate Parker as Nat Turner in “The Birth of a Nation.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

The title The Birth of a Nation mirrors the name of D.W. Griffith’s technically magnificent but highly racist 1915 film. This movie stands in diametric opposition.

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

This is what Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is not: It’s not a remake of D.W. Griffith’s infamously racist 1915 film that glorifies the Ku Klux Klan. It’s not a revenge fiction à la Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. It’s not a pure biopic, but rather a loose interpretation of the Nat Turner Slave Rebellion of 1831. And though it’s a hard-hitting film, it’s not without its flaws.

Note that when the movie charges into theaters this week, it will be laden with extraneous baggage due to a 1999 public incident that occurred during Nate Parker’s college days. Summing up: Parker and his roommate turned film co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin were involved in a rape accusation that ended with Parker’s acquittal, Celestin’s jailing (though the sentence was later vacated), and the suicide of the alleged victim in 2012.

Hence, the film has had a series of setbacks. The wave of excitement that the movie generated at last January’s Sundance Festival (winning multiple awards) has since abated; two months ago, AFI refused a planned screening; and on October 2, when Nate Parker appeared on 60 Minutes to plug the film, he ended up defending himself. Protests are scheduled to occur concurrent to the film’s opening, and the scandal is predicted to weaken the movie’s chances for Oscar contention.

Turning to the film itself: Though Nate Parker has made an impressive splash as an actor (e.g., Beyond the Lights, Arbitrage, The Great Debaters), taking on this epic as a first time feature writer/director posed an enormous challenge. He succeeded; yet, if The Birth of a Nation had been helmed by a more seasoned filmmaker, perhaps the movie could have reached greater heights.

Nate Parker as Nat Turner. Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu - © 2016 - Fox Searchlight Pictures

Nate Parker as Nat Turner. Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu – © 2016 – Fox Searchlight Pictures

The story opens as young Nat envisions himself in Ghana, embraced by a tribe of elders who pronounce him as a prophet. Transitioning to the Turner slave plantation in 1800s Virginia, it’s established that the child exhibits a desire for literacy. Plantation matriarch Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) decides to teach Nat how to read, relying solely on the Bible. She explains that other books are “full of things your kind wouldn’t understand.” But once the master dies, and the son takes over, Nat is sent back to the cotton fields.

The movie cuts to the grown Nat (Parker), sermonizing to a rapt group in the barn (even the horses appear to be engaged in the proceedings). When the Turner plantation falls on hard times, Master Sam (Armie Hammer) agrees to a novel idea: By “renting out” Nat to preach to slaves at nearby plantations — in the hopes that Nat’s sermons might quell potential insurrections — Sam will profit considerably. However, as Nat visits other neighboring plantations, witnessing the grotesque abuse of his people, he ultimately recognizes that he is destined to lead them into rebellion.

Parker’s characterization of Nat is superb, particularly as his sermons develop in dramatic outrage. His early preaching of the Bible’s gentler passages are gradually replaced with those that advocate violence to the oppressors. Yet as he preaches, his tone growing more aggressive, the attending white folks are clueless — which is rather unbelievable, given Nat’s unmistakable fire and brimstone delivery.

Many strong performances abound, i.e., the women in Nat’s life (wife, mother, grandmother respectively played by Aja Naomi King, Aunjanue Ellis and Esther Scott); additionally, Colman Domingo brings spark as Nat’s compadre.

Center: Penelope Ann Miller as Elizabeth Turner.

Center: Penelope Ann Miller as Elizabeth Turner. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

However, Parker’s screenplay misses opportunities to explore his characters time and again. How is it that the humanitarian Sam suddenly turns as vicious as his neighbors? Particularly since he witnesses the shocking abuse right along with Nat? Similarly, while matriarch Elizabeth exhibits determination in the first act, she becomes inexplicably mute as she sorrowfully witnesses the decline in civility. Her changed demeanor deserves explanation. And what of Nat’s father? He flees due to his inadvertent killing of a white man … and then, in a later act, he’s back working on the plantation as if nothing ever happened.

Additionally, while the depiction of monstrous cruelty and the battle scenes are highly effective, The Birth of a Nation suffers from a lack of nuance. All white people are horrible, all black people are noble. When Nate and his bride exchange profound looks of love in profile, a lit candle in the pouring rain is an obvious portent that their joy will soon be submerged. When Nat is whipped into semi-consciousness, his arms are spread out and bolted to a wooden plank, an unmistakable reference to the sacrificial Christ. And when hanging bodies swing from the trees, the soundtrack blaring “Strange Fruit” is so blatant, it intrudes on the audience’s moment to grieve in shock.

Savannah, Georgia stands in for antebellum Southampton County. Between cinematographer Elliot Davis’ sweeping cotton fields and wide angle vistas, and production designer Geoffrey Kirkland’s perfect plantations framed by drooping willows akin to Gone With the Wind, versus the slaves’ ramshackle huts foundering in the dirt (with ubiquitous chickens ever-pecking in the background), we get a superb sense of 1800s time and place. However, Henry Jackman’s score could have benefited from a more measured sensibility.

Surprisingly, Nat Turner’s story has never made it to the screen before. Yet the Turner rebellion resonates throughout American history: as a lead-up to the Civil War; as the spark that led a debate in the Virginia legislature over ending slavery; as inspiration for the dawning 1960s black power movement; and obviously today, reflecting the universal need to find harmony and acceptance, all the while nodding to the fact that an eye for an eye is never the answer.

The Birth of a Nation may be far from perfect … but Nat Turner’s story deserves our attention.

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Rating on a scale of 5 Bible stories: 3.5

Release date: October 7, 2016
Written and Directed by: Nate Parker
Story by: Nate Parker & Jean McGianni Celestin
Cast: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Mark Boone Jr., Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Aja Naomi King, Esther Scott, Gabrielle Union, Tony Espinosa
Running Time: 120 minutes
Rating: R

Here’s the trailer to The Birth of a Nation:

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 500+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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