The Birth of a Nation


 photo birth_of_a_nation_zpsayzjohqa.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgJust based on the title alone, 2016’s The Birth of a Nation might appear to be a remake of the infamous 1915 silent directed by D.W. Griffith. That picture, though financially successful, was highly controversial upon release and remains so to this day. Though hailed as a masterpiece for its revolutionary filmmaking techniques, it was also criticized as racist propaganda. A highly inflammatory piece of agitprop, the chronicle embraced the Southern cause in the Civil War and made heroes out of the Ku Klux Klan. Hard to fathom in this day and age, but this was a perspective that saw the abolitionist movement as destructive to the fabric of southern society. By “re-purposing” the title of that notorious achievement, 2016’s The Birth of a Nation also seeks to stir controversy. It is a subversive choice. This drama is a response of sorts, but from the viewpoint of one slave, Nat Turner.

Nat Turner (Nate Parker) was an African American who led a rebellion of fellow slaves and free blacks on August 21, 1831. The uprising in Southampton County, Virginia lasted about 48 hours and resulted in the deaths of 55 to 65 white people. The biography portrays his life. As a child, he displays a self-taught reading ability that impresses his owner’s wife (Penelope Ann Miller). She encourages his desire to read, but only from the Bible. As Nat grows older, he becomes a dynamic preacher. When his talents are recognized by white men, he is exploited into performing a role that will eventually change him. Turner’s master (Armie Hammer) profits by taking Nat across the country on a preaching tour to other slaves. We see how the word of God is manipulated to condone slavery. His sermons are meant to quell the workers and keep them in line. Nat’s facility with the Bible grows. He learns that for every line that appears to justify the practice, there is another that soundly condemns it. In his travels, Turner begins to see the scope of slavery, and his experience compels him to become a different kind of leader.

Nat receives preferential treatment for his work, but you can see his anger seething within. The Birth of a Nation is highlighted by some memorable images. The sight of a white girl and a black girl at play with a rope around the latter’s neck is a shocking image that jolts the viewer. When one slave refuses to eat, the horrific solution is too harrowing to even describe here.  An attack on Nat’s wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), is the defining moment that ultimately drives him to action. A quiet performance, actor Nate Parker often lets his face do the talking. He progressively realizes he is being used as a tool by white southerners to subjugate black slaves. Throughout the film, he often registers this through facial expressions and not words. His acting is a triumph of composed rage.

The Birth of a Nation is fashioned as a tale of revenge. It’s a difficult watch. The narrative dedicates very little time to the revolt itself. Instead it mostly dwells on the build-up of appalling events to which Nat Turner is a witness. The events have a galvanizing effect on him. He is transformed from a peaceful preacher into an angry rebel leading the downtrodden into an insurrection. Like 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, there is no shortage of atrocities presented on screen. It becomes so relentless that by the end of the picture, you’re so primed to see the oppressed rise up against their captors that the mutiny becomes a catharsis. As such, The Birth of a Nation is not a “slave” movie per se, but a “soldier” movie.

The Birth of a Nation is a powerful work, but it’s a disturbing one as well. As a document that challenges racism and white supremacy, it is most assuredly a step in the right direction. Nat Turner was hanged and given no formal burial. We are told (not shown) that he was then decapitated, quartered, and skinned. Soon after his death, attorney Thomas Ruffin Gray published The Confessions of Nat Turner. If you thirst for more of his story, I would suggest that. This film functions as a cinematic memorial that celebrates his memory. It also recounts a historical event and honors the legacy of Nat Turner. He was an early champion of civil rights – in a not-so-civil manner. He deserves a biography. Yet his story is told in broad strokes with plot points invented for dramatic effect (i.e.  Nat Turner’s wife was never gang raped by slave patrollers.  Nor was it the final inhumanity that inspired him to riot). It’s an emotional experience but not necessarily a wholly factual one.

The Birth of a Nation originally debuted at the Sundance Film Festival to thunderous applause and much acclaim back in January 2016. I will attest that it is is indeed a thought-provoking work. However in the ensuing months, rape allegations against the director have hung over this feature like a dark cloud. The Birth of a Nation has gone from “can’t-miss” to “should-miss”.  It tanked at the box office. I’m not here to tell you whether you should see this movie or not. That’s up to you. I can only give my opinion so that you can make an informed decision. Personally, I try to separate the art from the artist. I’ll admit it’s not always easy to do. Here I’ve chosen to review the film itself and in that spirit, I believe the message is worth your time.

10-08-16

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16 Responses to “The Birth of a Nation”

  1. Comparisons to ‘Django Unchained’ are few and far between as far as I’ve seen and heard.

  2. The extracurricular stuff is really unfortunate. I was talking to another Mark earlier today about this and other names that pop up are Roman Polanski and Woody Allen. Not even their reputations can bury their seedier real-life personas. I’ll still watch their stuff of course but it’s weird.

    As to the movie itself, yeah this is a rough one to get through. I thought it was well done but there were a few overbearing metaphors going on that bothered me some. Overall though, pretty impressive as a debut feature.

    • Fans have seemed to forgive Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, R. Kelly, Chris Brown, et al., for their scandals as those artists continue to enjoy success. In this case the scandal has unquestionably hurt this powerful (but somewhat flawed) film.

  3. I believe this to be a good directorial debut for Parker, and an Oscar-nominee worthy performance.

    Directing does let it down in a few places though, and I would have liked to see something a little more true to life here. Just feel that occasionally, Parker’s trying to be a little too Oscar-baitey in shots and allusions.

    • It’s an ambitious subject, particularly for a directorial debut.

      The controversy surrounding Parker’s private life has appeared to sink its Oscar chances at this point. Aja Naomi King is still being discussed as a possible contender for Best Supporting Actress, though.

  4. I have a tough time watching these types of movies. To know that there was a time when people were treated as property, makes me ill. The treatment was barbaric, at times. I covered my eyes a lot. But well done. 3 1/2 stars

  5. This movie didn’t really do it for me. I thought it was well-made overall, and very well-acted, but it didn’t seem to depict slavery as brutally as it should have. Nat Turner was given so much preferential treatment, and he was put on the post once in the entire movie, and suddenly that’s enough to stir him up and make him want to kill the people who gave him special treatment? That didn’t make sense to me.

    • I’m not sure I understand your confusion. It didn’t make sense to you that he would want to rise up against “the people who gave him special treatment”?

      It wasn’t the whipping alone. It’s implied that it was the rape of his wife that finally sent him over the edge. However, he witnessed many atrocities. It was a gradual build up over time. The film was extremely brutal.

      • I know he witnessed many atrocities, but none directly affected him, other than the whipping and, yes, the rape of his wife. Whether it would have been more accurate or not, I feel like it would have been a more powerful story if he had risen up against the white man after facing all of those brutalities himself.

      • The very existence of slavery was bad enough. It made sense to me.

  6. I’ve heard that Parker’s performance in Birth of a Nation is fantastic, so I’m not surprised to read that his “acting is a triumph of composed rage.” I’ve also heard that its difficult to watch for disturbing scenes like the ones you mention (the slave that refuses to eat) and that it’s not necessarily accurate from a factual perspective. Personally my decision on whether I should see the movie has been affected by the allegations against Parker, and I admit I’m having a hard time separating the art from the artist. That said, I totally respect your perspective and will take your recommendation that it’s worth my time into consideration.

  7. I sat through the 1915 “Birth of a Nation” once, primarily as a matter of historical interest but hoping to appreciate something of what it’s original viewers had seen. I think the latter’s been made impossible by intervening years of watched movies. Everything about the original seemed creaky and uninvolving. The one interesting aspect that HAD held up over time was the off-beat point of view it offered in featuring the Klan as heroes. Your description of this same-named but politically-very-okay epic reinforces my feeling that that kind of thing couldn’t be done anymore. After all, what do you expect from a hundred years of progress?

    By the way, if the personal lives of film-makers had anything to do with how we took to their creations, we’d all go bowling five nights a week.

    • Regarding your final statement, I couldn’t agree more. It’s interesting how the court of public opinion will deem one movie “off-limits” while another is considered “acceptable” to watch. I’ve never understood why the lives of certain filmmakers are overlooked while others are held accountable. That it’s incredibly inconsistent is a mere understatement.

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