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The Dose: ‘The Birth of a Nation’ tells the story of Nat Turner

The Dose: ‘The Birth of a Nation’ tells the story of Nat Turner

The Dose: ‘The Birth of a Nation’ tells the story of Nat Turner
October 11
12:26 2016

You would think with all of the controversies and hoopla surrounding it, “The Birth of a Nation” would be one of the year’s finest films. Tainted by rape charges from his college years, writer/director/actor Nate Parker (“Beyond the Lights”) has a lot to prove with his ambitious epic, a passion project about the life and times of resistance leader Nat Turner.

All of the requisites of brilliant filmmaking are present and accounted for, including stellar performances, beautiful cinematography and a perfect music score. But despite all of those factors, “Birth of a Nation” falls short of excellence.

In the film, Parker stars as Nat Turner, a man born into slavery but given the privilege to read and study the Bible. Once Turner grows up, he’s taken across the country by his master (Armie Hammer), who profits from Turner preaching select passages – and ignoring others – to make working slaves more obedient. During this journey, Turner is exposed to hardships that eventually entice him into leading the infamous slave rebellion of 1831.

The most interesting aspect of “Birth” is its approach to the historical genre. Unlike “12 Years a Slave,” which brutally and audaciously portrayed the violence and mental degradation of servitude, “Birth” details America’s perversion of religion for the purpose of conquering an entire race. The film cites scripture from start to finish, delivered in ways that are meaningful, bleak or a mixture of the two.

Under Parker’s watchful eye, impressive for a first-time director, the themes and brutality are tackled with the caliber of a tenured Oscar nominee. The way the camera takes in plantations, fields and houses paint canvases throughout the film. Parker’s approach to slave violence is more minimalist than vicious. Focusing on the aftermaths rather than the methods of cruelty proves to be more disturbing than ever.

As much as I want to praise this film implicitly and call it an instant classic, this is one of those rare films that should’ve been 30 to 40 minutes longer. Clocking in at a meager two hours, it spends copious amounts of time on Turner’s childhood, marriage and relationships with other slaves. While Turner is fleshed out and supremely performed by Parker himself, there’s too many times where scenes abruptly switch at pivotal points, leaving several supporting characters criminally underdeveloped.

Even though Turner’s wife (Aja Naomi King) plays a major role initially, she’s barely alluded to for a huge chunk of the movie, making me question her relevance for a long time. Also, the film gingerly builds up to its war-heavy climax – the selling point of every trailer – and ends too fast to be resonant. Worst of all, Parker spent so much time on the plight of enslavement that he failed to humanize any white characters.

As crucial as it is to portray racism from black perspectives, “12 Years a Slave” and “Selma” both benefited from realistically showing different ideologies of the opposite side: racist and unprejudiced. Steve McQueen and Ava DuVernay made modern masterpieces on African-American rights that didn’t shy away from the hypocrisies and flaws of their subjects, as well as the character development of other races.

“Birth” falters in that approach, pigeonholing its actors into good and evil archetypes and killing them off without enough on-screen evolution to create earned emotions.

Lastly, Parker clearly watched “The Revenant” and made Alejandro Iñárritu’s same mistake of having surreal visions interrupt the story at random points. While I appreciate artistic expression, all of these instances were corny and gave incongruity to an otherwise realistic film.

Although its problems disappointed me, “The Birth of a Nation” is still a good movie. There’s enough superb direction and narrative importance for me to recommend seeing this in a theater. While it’s not as classic as it could’ve been, it does make me curious to see what else Nate Parker will direct. Hopefully, the training wheels will come off next time.

Featured Image: Sundance Institute Courtesy

About Author

Preston Mitchell

Preston Mitchell

Preston served as the Opinion Editor of the North Texas Daily from July 2016 to July 2017, and is a UNT graduate of integrative studies.

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