Man Seeking Movies: Slaves rebel in controversial ‘The Birth of a Nation’

Nat Turner leads an uprising in this mediocre historical drama.

By Jack Cronin | Oct. 14, 2016

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After generating buzz at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, The Birth of a Nation was prematurely labeled as an Oscar contender. However, the historical drama about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion became shrouded in controversy before ever hitting theaters.

This summer, information was brought to the public’s attention regarding the past of Nate Parker, who happens to be the movie’s writer, director and lead actor. In 2001, Parker and Jean Celestin (Parker’s co-writer on The Birth of a Nation) were charged with the rape and sexual assault of a fellow college classmate. While Parker was acquitted, Celestin was found guilty and given a short prison sentence.

When this story resurfaced, Parker and the general public learned that his accuser committed suicide in 2012. In response, the actor issued a statement expressing sorrow and regret, but maintaining his innocence. Although his statement seemed sincere, it can easily be read as a dismissal to maintain the film’s awards chances.

Between the allegations and Parker’s questionable sincerity, an unofficial boycott of Parker’s film has begun. Ultimately, it’s up to audiences to determine their own stance.

However, making the case for supporting the movie would be easier if the finished product were better. The Birth of a Nation is a sloppily-paced drama that renders its biographical subject as a messianic figure.

Young Nat Turner (Parker) is likened to a prophet early, and the film fully commits itself to this idea. At times, these comparisons work. Nat’s preaching inspires hope for audiences, as well as for his fellow slaves. Likewise, the notion that he is a long-lost savior to the racially oppressed is powerful both in the film and when it is extended beyond.

But for every moment where this depiction works, there’s another that proves overhanded and ineffective. Nat is often holding a Bible, standing next to a cross or both. These shots are so repeatedly in-your-face that it almost becomes annoying. More importantly, though, they keep Nat at arm’s length from viewers, creating an unrelatable figure rather than a heroic human being.

Yet that’s not even the worst aspect of The Birth of a Nation. As a writer and director, Parker has a terrible command of pacing.

The first half hour consists of slow conversations separated by big, ambiguous gaps of time. Nat rescues a young female slave in one scene, then marries her five minutes later. Even the climax features stops and starts that cut the film’s momentum. This creates a story that is slow, yet oddly rushed.

While Parker struggles as a director, the story of Nat Turner is intriguing, especially when it comments on current social contexts. The slave owners are widely depicted, from silent and greedy bystanders to the outright racist oppressors. Occasionally, the dialogue speaks almost directly to the audience with power and clarity.

Truthfully, The Birth of a Nation isn’t too far from being a great movie. It’s a well-produced, true-story drama with something to say. Unfortunately, the inexperience of Parker and Celestin as director and writers prove detrimental in more scenes than not.

On its own, The Birth of a Nation is hardly worth seeing. Add a controversy into the mix, and it might just be worthy of avoiding.

MOVE gives The Birth of a Nation 2.5 out of 5 stars.

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