The Birth of... Well, Not A Ton Actually
by Andrew Saladino
'The Birth of a Nation': more ho-hum than horror
It's impossible not to feel Nate Parker's passion in every moment of 'The Birth of a Nation', but it's ultimately a mixed-to-positive bag of efficiently done elements we've seen magnificently done elsewhere. Its Virgina setting is realized as well as can be asked for, and Parker himself gives a stirring performance as slave-turned-rebel Nat Turner, however the film as a whole has none of the poetry or violent impact that 2013's '12 Years a Slave' did, and nor does it have any of its complexity.
If there's a film to compare it to, then it's Mel Gibson's full-bloodied 'Braveheart' - another tale about an everyman-turned-martyr leading a righteous revolt- but even still, 'Nation' lacks many of 'Braveheart's best qualities. For one, almost of all of the violence here happens either offscreen or on cuts-- someone swings a fist at someone else, and the second before they make contact, the film cuts to a massive wide-- thus nearly always deadening the impact. Beyond violence though, 'Nation' lacks a solid underbelly of complexity, opting instead for the kind of straightforward hero-worship we saw in 'American Sniper' where Bradley Cooper was basically just playing Jesus disguised as Chris Kyle. There's nothing necessarily wrong with having a character who is utterly and completely convinced that their actions are justified, but to not offer any opportunity for alternate-devil's-advocate-views or to at least have characters around them to serve as any sort of buffer is just... well, kinda lazy. 'Nation' also misses a huge opportunity to stir the pot with any conversation on Biblical violence, or rather violence in the Bible and violence that the Bible may condone.
The biggest missteps of the film however, begin with Jackie Earle Haley's arguably-goofy standard movie-baddie, and end with the treatment of Turner's wife Cherry, who really only exists in the film so she can be raped. The fact that the event never happened in real life doesn't bother me so much as the fact that that's where the character's story ends. She's in only two scenes after that moment- which happens somewhere around the one-hour mark- and is only fully conscious in one of them. If that story isn't really going to go anywhere, then all the time Parker spent building both her and her relationship with Turner up- which takes up a good chunk of the film's first half- winds up being kind of wasted.
When the film works though, it does work. Yes, it's less a product of genuine cinema and more of an expensive History Channel special, but it's still one that's fairly and competently well-handled. I'd so much rather a filmmaker- especially a first timer like Parker- try big and not fully succeed, rather than go for something far easier.
**1/2 (two and a half stars out of four)
'The Birth of a Nation'. Directed by Nate Parker. Starring Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Mark Boone Junior, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Aja Naomi King, Esther Scott, Penelope Ann Miller, Gabrielle Union, Jackie Earle Haley. 120 min. Rated R (standard bloody historical violence)