Birth of a Nation review
It seems that each week I turn on the news, there’s a tragic shooting of an African-American (sometimes by a citizen, but most often by a police officer). It’s become an increasing problem that has people debating whether Americans are still racist. One side shouts how black lives matter while people from the other side try to justify the need for certain profiling in certain regions. I hate to think that in the year of 2016, something like this even exists. We already have a checkered past when we had slavery. Like most people, I believe that no one has the right to own another human being.
That said, we’ve gotten plenty of stories about certain slaves and the trails and tribulations they’ve had to go through. If I had to claim the best ones, I’d say the Roots TV series and 12 Years a Slave tell the darkest, but most insightful tales about slavery. What surprises me is that no one has created a movie about Nat Turner, who led a slave revolt against their masters. This was also one of the few slaves who had the privilege to read. So let’s see how Birth of a Nation tries to fill in the gaps on this American hero that is little known.
In the early nineteenth century, a slave boy, Nat Turner, is told that due to his body marks on his chest, that he is destined to become a leader. He’s also picked up a few reading lessons due to have eavesdropped on his masters children’s education. When caught, he’s given additional reading lessons in order to learn how to read the bible. Cut to years later, Nat Turner (played by Nate Parker) has become a preacher to his fellow slaves and is the only source of comfort for their way of living.
His master Samuel Turner (played by Armie Hammer), while not a nice guy, seems to have given more respect for his slaves then a lot of the other plantation owners. With that, he allows Nat Turner to talk him into buying a slave girl, Cherry (played by Aja Naomi King) and takes him to various places to preach. Nat is only told to read scripture that justifies slavery, and this only allows him to see some of the greater horrors of what masters are doing. A series of events leads him to have a change of principles and leads his fellow slaves into a revolt.
Birth of a Nation has an idea that could have made the story very impactful. I like the idea of having this guy’s world being twisted due to the way religion is presented to him and how he later comes to his own conclusions. Unfortunately, this film had to come out after 12 Years a Slave, which is still a movie that broke me so hard I can’t even watch it again. This could still work, but director-actor Nate Parker had a lot of work filling in the parts we don’t know about Nat Turner.
What we get is a very conventional story that uses a lot of movie clichés (there’s one part that represents a characters fall and rise and came off a lot like a sports movie). The transitions of personalities are sloppy and certain story arcs feels rushed at times (especially with Nat’s change of heart). I can’t deny that a part of me was still impacted by this man’s actions and what he was accomplishing. It’s still well acted and a lot of the shots are just gorgeous. I just feel bad its working with a script and editing that does no favors.
I’ll give this three cotton plants out of five. While there are parts that make it worth at least one watch, it’s unlikely to hold in film history like 12 Years a Slave did. Birth of a Nation just wasn’t the impact hit that I thought it was when it hit the film festivals earlier.