This film has been overshadowed not by its subject, but by its star, and that is a shame.
People have always had a problem separating the art from the artist. Even if you’re a genius, as in the cases of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, there will still be detractors who see more of what is behind the camera than in front of it. Writer, director, and star of The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker, was charged with sexual assault in college, only to be cleared of it and resolve to be a better man, and yet that case is all people can think of when they discuss this film. I have opened my review this way, and that only serves my point.
When you strip away all the news, though, watching only the film, it’s worth more than people are willing to give it. Assuming Nate Parker continues to make films, I have no question that he will one day craft a masterpiece. Give him a chance.
This Birth of a Nation, chronicling the rise and fall of enslaved preacher Nat Turner, is about the trials of the oppressed. Beginning with his childhood and continuing chronologically, the film is more about the “pregnancy” than the “birth.” As a boy, Nat Turner was able to read and was thus taught the Bible, and “gifted” as he may have been, he was still chosen to be a farm hand when he matured.
As an adult, Turner was tasked with going from plantation to plantation—accompanied by his master—to preach the gospel to slaves and raise their morale. It was on these journeys that Turner witnessed the impossible cruelty exhibited toward his fellow man, and one day enough was enough. He was taught the word of the Lord, after all, and it was full of hypocrisies. Nat Turner, following the charge set forth by God, slaughtered 60 slaveowners in the span of 48 hours before being captured, hanged, and dismembered.
I cannot condone the actions depicted in this film, but I surely cannot argue their justification. As this film shows, Nat Turner was no monster. He was a man who was bent and bent until he finally broke, a man. He felt as if he had no choice.
The film itself is well made. It aims to be 12 Years a Slave, but does not have the majestic precision that comes with years of experience. It paints the characters with both sides of the brush, but still resorts to type every now and then. It’s gruesomely unsettling, but it has to be. Nate Parker, for what it’s worth, gives a magnificent performance as Turner, and Armie Hammer makes your empathy complicated.
Before the news of Nate Parker’s assault case, he was being heralded as a genius. The Birth of a Nation set the record at Sundance for the highest bid there for a motion picture, and I can see why. I don’t think anyone starts out a genius, but I do think that, with time, Nate Parker will live up to that word. This film is merely the birth of his genius.
The Birth of a Nation is in theaters now.
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