THE BIRTH OF A NATION Review
Director: Nate Parker
Genre: Historical Drama
Context is key. As soon as one views a piece of art in a bubble, they’re doomed. Sure, one can revel in a cheap aesthetic thrill or wallow in the sumptuousness of eye candy, but they have lost sight of the bulk of what is able to be derived. In the recent months following its breakout, record-shattering performance at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, writer/director/producer Nate Parker has been catching some righteous heat for a 2001 rape trial he was ultimately acquitted for (the victim committed suicide in 2012). In most scenarios, the artist’s content should be seen on its own terms, but it’s impossible when the product is a self-portrait. Nate Parker is Nat Turner, and he reminds you of this parallel at the five minute, ten minute, 15 minute, 20 minute, etc. marks of THE BIRTH OF A NATION. Serving as a meta-narrative for Parker’s past and present plight to present this project to you, what should be blisteringly personal becomes distractingly conceited. This is a film staged around the research of Nate Parker’s African-American Studies 201 term paper and a single remarkable composition (one that is almost completely sabotaged by the heavy-handed “Strange Fruit” needle-drop).
We live in one of the angriest times in this furious nation’s history: Parker’s depiction of the rebellion, regardless of how lackluster and budget-constrained it is, inspired hoots, hollers, and laughter at my screening. “Fuck Donald Trump!” yelled as the credits began to roll. “Fuck the white devils!” as Nat Turner was hanged. “Yessir!” as Nat Turner tells his brigade of brothers that they must “destroy them all.” This wasn’t an opening night packed house: I was at a Saturday morning matinee at an outlet mall. Parker has gone on record to say that he hopes his film inspires a “riotous disposition,” a reaction he’s certainly receiving, but it may also be a marker of what little else the picture has to offer than a release of justified bloodlust.
Source: Sparknotes page for THE BIRTH OF A NATION
This is far from the verified Nat Turner biopic: THE BIRTH OF A NATION is stuffed with fallacies like none other. The historical inaccuracies are alarming, not for their infidelity to the nation’s past (that’s all historical drama; if I were seeking an encyclopedic exploration of Nat Turner, my last destination would be a medium based in illusion and falsities), no, but rather for what is substituted. Turner was a zealot, a community leader convinced that he was a prophet: His actions were inspired by faith. The film never quite explores this beyond an explicit textual level. It may be because Turner is primarily guided by the violence beset upon the women in his life: Their suffering is the catalyst for his action. Parker milks the anguish — knowing his personal history, it’s a sickening sight of self-congratulation and insincere apology. Self-serving as all hell, this isn’t a film for the community.
Calling a 21st century film about a slave rebellion THE BIRTH OF A NATION is not unlike staging the reclamation of a slur. At one point, a farm-owner introduces his slaves to Turner with “I got a preacher here tonight, he’s a ni**er like y’all.” It’s a jeer, a condescending statement meant to demean the crowd and the black man in a position of power. And though the line-reading is specifically aimed to trigger an audience’s rebuke, one can’t help but feel that Parker is playing exactly to the tune of this slaver’s remark, providing a black story necessary for black, and national, communities. It’s a reclamation of a slur through action (remember, Nate Parker is Nat Turner!). The concept is fascinating, playing with the role of black cinema in the context of one of the most prominent black storytellers in American history, but the execution is as clumsy as a Beta frat member’s argument as to how it’s okay for him to say the n-word because his black pledge brother gave him permission. Parker is convinced in himself and his thesis, but every aspect of his output blubbers and sputters.
A story about an insecure black pastor would have certainly been more unique
Disappointingly, the title of the film is a mere decontextualization of the title to D.W. Griffith’s most infamous epic, rather than a deconstruction of the subject. What Griffith’s KKK-celebrating classic boasted was a revolutionary uptick in a medium’s approach to visual storytelling and spectacle. For a majority of the runtime, Parker struggles to escape the safety wide. Some tangential, possibly thought-provoking motifs (bleeding husks of corn, black angels) are conjured, but are implemented in random cut-aways. There are several instances of slow-motion impact shots that lose sight of the target due to how suddenly choppy the frame rate becomes. It is amateur hour. THE BIRTH OF A NATION’s artfulness reads like a student who put off their seven-page research paper the morning it’s due and just lumps in paragraphs from Googled sources for the sake of reaching a page count.
There is content in Parker’s passion project, but it’s all thoughtless. Or worse: blindingly obvious. Nat Turner bows his head towards his deceased grandmother, leaned over in the foreground as the fireplace behind his head in the background blazes. The internal flame is bellowing, get it? If telling the story of Nat Turner’s rebellion against slavers is Nate Parker’s revolt against the white supremacy of the studio system, the half-hearted filmmaking makes the whole experience nauseatingly pompous. This is nightmare auteurism, with the leading author inserting himself into every conceivable facet of his own production. First and foremost a vanity project, but now projected as a platform to elevate the urban community, THE BIRTH OF A NATION is the story of a self-proclaimed martyr driven by the voice of God and, in the process, deluded himself into becoming Him. Whether your desire to pay heed to Parker is based on the content of his character or the level of his craft, perhaps he isn’t the one to listen to, regardless of how much he seems to be smitten by the idea of hearing himself.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend