*This review may have spoilers and is not going to be judged based on the scandal surrounding Nate Parker at this time*
The Birth of a Nation might be the most anticipated film of 2016. After receiving a standing ovation at Sundance immediately after the Oscars so white controversy, this film was headed towards a best picture nomination and more. Then, it had some bumps in the road. The first and foremost is a scandal and then as more people have seen it, some say it’s not up to the hype. I’m in the latter camp. I can’t say I was disappointed, but maybe we shouldn’t set the bar so high.
The film is about Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a slave preacher, leading the bloodiest slave rebellion in history. It starts off about his life and then ends with his battle. It shows young Nat and his experiences as a child to his first experiences as the smart kid. Then, it goes to Nat growing up and eventually making a name for himself. Finally, it concludes with his rebellion that fully realizes his plan before he changes history.
The performances in this film were pretty great. I think that Nate Parker did a great job as Nat Turner. I liked the performances by Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, and Mark Boone Junior. I thought that the scenery and backgrounds were spectacular. I felt like I was taken back to the time of slavery. Gabrielle Union and Aja Naomi King were great as usual, too. The performances are what sets this movie apart. There’s a sort of realness that this film has and feels like because of them.
The best part of the film is how you can see the transition in Nat and the fantastic imagery that is used. Nat goes from having a small world view to truly understanding why slavery is unjust in a short amount of time and you can see it on his face. I loved the transition of his character based on each new plantation that he visited. I also loved the imagery used in the film. There’s one scene where Nat has an ax and the cross is behind him. The tension is palpable and I was gripping my chair. It was a scene that I won’t forget for a very long time. There’s also a scene with teeth being removed and it’s heartbreaking. This film doesn’t hold back on what it shows you. It’s real and definitely, has a point.
I thought the film was a little heavy handed in the religion parts and it took away from the greater story. I understand that Nat was trying to use the Bible to turn other slaves and even himself against his/their master, but at times, I thought it was overbearing. There’s a lot of unnecessary angel scenes and the ending makes him seem like too much of a saint. In actuality, Nat Turner got a lot of innocent men killed for his actions so I don’t think he should be shown as a Christ figure. Maybe that’s just me, but I thought it went against the message of Christ and should’ve just been the story about Turner who wanted to bring change. He just happened to use the word of Christ as a tool, not that he was actually Christ. There’s also some scenes where imagery is used of a kid and a protector of some sort that I didn’t understand at all. If those two things were taken out of the film, I don’t think the film would change its message at all.
My biggest complaint is that this film drags. It takes time to build the story and there are a lot of scenes that feel twice as long as they actually are. I won’t say that it’s bad filmmaking, but there’s a point where you start to nit-pick the film because it’s moving at 2 miles per hour. I think that other films like this one have similar problems, but the lack of action in some shots really hurts the film.
Overall, this is no 12 Years a Slave. The level of filmmaking from Nate Parker does not match Steve McQueen and the performances do not match it. I think that it’s a decent film, but I definitely wouldn’t go in with the highest expectations. If you can get over the Nate Parker scandal, then I would recommend you go see it just to experience it. It’s one of those films that has a lot to say and now might be the best time for us to listen.