Director: Nate Parker
Writers: Nate Parker , Jean McGianni Celestin
Stars: Nate Parker (The Great Debaters, Non-Stop, Red Tails ), Armie Hammer (The Social Network, The Man From U.N.C.L.E, Lone Ranger), Penelope Ann Miller (The Artist, Carlito’s Way, Awakenings) , Chike Okonkwo (The Program, Paradox, Derailed)
It is clear from the beginning that Nate Parker’s hard fought and buzzed about Birth of a Nation is intended to be a strong visual feast, many of which display unashamed connections to rituals and practices that look African, although where in Africa those rituals emanate is another matter entirely. Birth of a Nation is full of such. Striking shots tuned to soaring scores, unsurprising given that Nat Turner, the man of whom the film is primarily about experienced vivid visions. However the general usefulness of these scenes leave many questions as to their real purpose in the film, whether for plot advancement or sensory enhancement. I left this movie not knowing which
Birth of a Nation, is about the life of Nat Turner, who led a 48 hour violent slave rebellion. Nat Turner was a man who spent his life first as a cotton picker (anyone notice how cotton has become a symbol for cinematic Black oppression?) then a preacher used to quell the unease in many slaves using the message of peace in the bible to dissuade any revolutionary instincts the other slaves might have. It’s a delicious irony, but not entirely unexpected given that film begins with a young Nat and his mother validated by an pagan priest as special, a thing Nat carries with him throughout the film. He picks up reading early and even rides horses while the rest of the Negro’s trot.
The cinematography is kind to the southern landscape often lending a beauty even in the film’s most gruesome scenes. The editing is one of the finer cinematic accomplishments this year with zero special effects or false constructed worlds or revolutionary technique that lends itself to a strong sense of storytelling. Oral storytelling, a fading quality in Africa, this editing gives the feeling that even without words one could easily follow the transitions.
One of the most outstanding features of Birth of a Nation is its soundtrack. There is a stunning sequence featuring Nina Simone’s cover of Strange Fruit, a poem with the clearest and most upsetting metaphors in the past and present. We are treated to a filmmaker’s interpretation and everybody in the audience felt it. The film is supported very well with its host of characters who do their part in ushering Nat Turner to his shirt lived destiny. Both males and females, though in different forms project a certain taste for revenge, it could almost be argued made the rebellion much easier to accomplish.
Most of the film functions as a 360 introduction into Nat Turner going through his life like a biography and justifying the last third of the film through the triggers the first and second halves have built. Due the emphasis on image and sound though, many of his dream sequences did more for the whole film than long stretches of preaching, cotton picking or posturing with supporting characters.
There have been many concerns surrounding this movie, most of which seem turned towards the crew as opposed to the output. Earlier at this year’s Sundance the film broke records when it got into a bidding war that generated the highest fees for an indie, eventually purchased by 20th Century Fox, who have partnered with Film One and thus brought it to the biggest film festival in Africa where the audience watched Nat Turner speak about his passion for telling stories and how important it was for him to put this before an African audience.
Does any of this matter really? Maybe for context but I have always believed a film should stand away from the realities behind it.
Yes they could be used to increase magazine sales or keep certain timely conversations around, but a work of art at least deserves the respect of being criticized on its merits and pitfalls, not on the history of anything else. And Birth of a Nation, does so many excellently but ultimately fails to rise to the greatness we’ve been sold since it’s premiere at Sundance.
From Sodas ‘N’ Popcorn, Birth Of A Nation earns a Popcorn and Hotdog
This review is written by Alithnayn Abdulkareem.