ScreenCritics Adam takes a look at ‘The Birth of a Nation’.
Films are a reflection of the people who make them, which is why when we critique a film, we often critique the person behind it too. But there is a debate to be had about how far we should go allowing our thoughts about a director or actor affect our thoughts on the film they have made or starred in. It tends to end up being down to the quality of the movie which is why Mel Gibson was banished from Hollywood until he made Hacksaw Ridge while everyone remains quiet on Woody Allen and Roman Polanski despite the allegations made against them. So can The Birth of a Nation get past the allegations made against their director?
Nat Turner (Nate Parker, Non-Stop) is a literate slave in the deep south who soon finds himself being taken to several different plantations so he can preach Christianity to other slaves in an attempt to subdue unruly slaves. However when he sees the way they are treat, he decides to start a rebellion.
So, let’s get this out-of-the-way. The Birth of a Nation was treated as a potential Oscar winner when it won a lot of awards at the Sundance Film Festival and was snapped up for a record fee. However it emerged that the star, director and writer of the film Nate Parker had been accused of rape. While Parker was acquitted, his friend and co-writing credit on the film Jean McGianni Celestin was convicted of sexual assault. Both tried to get ahead of the story by doing interviews on it a few months before the film was released, but when it emerged that the accuser committed suicide in 2012, their reputation was dead in the water. This is something you have to consider when watching the film, and it makes a rape scene in the film feel rather wrong especially as it was apparently invented for the movie, and yes it did sink any chance the film had at claiming awards. But now that I’ve addressed the elephant in the room, it is time to judge the film on its own merits.
What I appreciate about the film is that it isn’t afraid to take its time. The film has a slow pace which is a bit tough for some, and I will admit sometimes it did drag a bit, but it is all for a purpose. The character of Nat Turner needs to be built so we can see why he would be able to convince a whole load of slaves to rise up when they are most likely going to be slaughtered by people who can easily organise and get a hold of weapons. We need time for the relationship between Nat and his master Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer, The Man from U.N.C.L.E) to develop because the way it sparks the rebellion. Sometimes you need to take some time and realise what path you are on rather than speeding through it to get to the conclusion,
Now if you strip away everything, Birth of a Nation is a revenge film which presents its own challenge. You see, there was a tradition of low-grade blaxploitation films about escaped slaves going back for revenge and killing his former owners in the most gruesome ways possible. While there is a debate on whether or not these films were actually good for empowering black people in films, the widespread consensus is that these were very racist films and they died out after a lot of pressure from groups such as the NAACP. So Parker has a tricky job so he doesn’t end up making a blaxploitation film for the modern age.
He does this by avoiding a lot of the gore and violence that were hallmarks of the genre. And yes, that is a good thing because the film has enough controversy around it without attracting that debate. But he may have muted it a bit too much. You notice when there is one of the most tough to watch shots I’ve seen in a long time towards the end of the film that the movie has lacked that throughout it’s run time. You rewind and you see that when Turner visited other plantations, the various whippings which shocked him were not shot full on, but only see part of it. It’s the sort of shots you do when you are aiming for a 12A, not for a film that is aiming start a conversation and provoke a character into doing a rebellion. It’s a weird thing to be asking for, but this film does need to be shocking as when it does it, it’s incredibly powerful. As it doesn’t for a large part of the film, it does feel like many of the other slavery films released in recent years.
Of course The Birth of a Nation is backed up by some great performances. I do feel uncomfortable saying this due to the allegations made against him and some other details I unearthed when doing research for this film, but Parker is fantastic in this film as he changes from someone who is rather docile into the leader of a revolution. No one else really gets the time to try and challenge him for performance of the movie, but the cast all do a good job with some of the other southern owners coming off as particularly villainous, and they really do get you angry and backing Parker’s brutal rebellion.
Look, The Birth of a Nation is never going to get past the allegations made against its director and the way he responded to them. That’s why a film which was meant to reclaim the name of one of the most famously racist movies of all time ended up being a bomb and getting none of the award attention it probably would have gotten otherwise. I get that many people will refuse to watch because of the actions of the director, and honestly I don’t blame you for that. But if you do watch this, you will get a very good film that does show the brutality and evilness of slavery, even if it doesn’t go far enough to separate itself from many of the other films which also center on this terrible chapter of human history.