Timing is an important thing for film releases. Whenever a studio stakes a claim on a date, their hope is that the conditions are just right for the best possible exposure for their films. Sometimes a movie has the disadvantage of being released at the wrong time, with outside influences clouding it’s exposure, such as a national tragedy or inclement weather. But, for the most part, many films are given the right amount of exposure and it largely has to do with the types of movies they are. Action movies and high concept fantasies typically release in the summer while prestige dramas are given the fall and winter, in anticipation of awards season the following year. But even with these conditions, studios still want to avoid things that can sometimes be out of their control, such as controversies related to the movie or the people involved. This is especially true when there’s a movie that Hollywood has high hopes for and yet still are aware that it can turn into a lightning rod for some people. That seems to have been the recent case with the long road to the big screen for director and star Nate Parker’s new film The Birth of a Nation (2016). The story of a slave revolt in the South during the pre-Civil War years became the most talked about film coming out of the Sundance Film Festival where it premiered. It soon turned into a major story when it broke the record for the biggest sale ever made at the festival for one film, with Fox Searchlight paying $17 million for distribution rights. In the wake of the “Oscar’s So White” controversy, The Birth of a Nation looked like the right film for Hollywood to have the socially aware, African-American centered awards front-runner they needed, but as we’ve seen, a lot can happen in a few months.
Since it’s Sundance premiere, The Birth of a Nation has enjoyed a good amount of exposure even before rolling out into wide release. The film received a warm reception at the Toronto Film Festival where it also played, and it appeared that it was well on it’s way to being an early front runner for the upcoming awards season. However, real life events have cast a cloud over the movie, affecting it’s reception just as the larger public is now able to watch it themselves. Both are unfortunately negative factors. The first, of course, are revelations of Nate Parker’s possible rape case from his days back in college. He’s never been convicted, but his accuser took her life some years ago and the charges have been floating around ever since, only now becoming public, just as his career is beginning to take off. Whether he’s guilty of the crime or not, it still is overshadowing the release of the movie, and may audience members are now confronted with having to try to separate the art from the audience, which is harder to do for some who take this issue very seriously. The other thing that is affecting the release of this movie is the straight from the headlines stories of African-American men being killed by police officers who are using excessive force across the country. This is affecting the movie differently from Nate Parker’s own controversies and makes it sadly prescient. A lot will be talked about this movie in the weeks ahead, and more than likely, both narratives surrounding it’s release will either make or break this film at the box office. But, now that it’s here for all of us to see, does it hold up to the hype surrounding it, or is it a whole lot of noise for something not all that extraordinary.
The Birth of a Nation tells the true story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a literate slave who has been raised to become a preacher for other slaves in the Antebellum South. His Master, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) sees Nat’s elegant sermonizing as useful for helping to keep the other slaves on his plantation cooperative and obedient. When Samuel’s associate, Reverend Zalthall (Mark Boone Jr.), suggests that he should take Nat to other plantations to “spread his word,” Samuel sees a prime opportunity to bring extra income into his cash-strapped plantation. Soon, he and Nat travel across the county to every nearby plantation, with Nat witnessing more and more horrific sights committed against the slaves by their masters. Nat becomes increasingly torn, trying to reconcile what he’s learned all his life from the Turner family, and how it goes against everything his faith stands for. He reaches a breaking point when his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) is brutally raped and beaten by a group of slave hunting mercenaries, led by the ruthless Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley). This, in addition to Samuel’s increasingly demanding orders to exploit Nat for his cause, as well as all the other slaves, and Nat resolves once and for all to finally fight for his right to be a free man. Along with his fellow rebellious slaves Will (Chike Okonwo) and Hark (Colman Domingo), and many dozens more, Nat’s small, bloody revolution begins to unfold and as a result, sends shock waves through the South and through history. Many Southerners at the time have tried to silence the legacy of Nat Turner’s revolt, but thankfully now it’s coming back to light at a time when it needs to be remembered.
So, with a story this fascinating, and a message more timely than ever, this would appear to be a sure fire awards season favorite heading into the fall. Unfortunately, this is also a movie where it’s ambition and it’s heart far exceed it’s execution. Having finally seen it for myself, I can tell you that it is a fairly good movie, but only just that. It’s not, for lack of a better word, revolutionary, nor is a failure either. I think the main problem that I have with this movie is the uneven way it is presented. What should have been stirring and visceral feels instead very muted and conventional. It’s very clear that this is a movie made from a first time director. The film is not poorly made, but you can feel the amateurishness of a storyteller who wants to tell a grand story, but is not quite comfortable with all the storytelling tools that are at his disposal. But, even still, Nate Parker does show a lot of talent behind the camera, and there are several moments in the movie that do stand out. However, any moment that does land is then undermined only scenes later with what I would call cinematic short-cuts. There is a lot of heavy handed symbolism in this movie, and some of it is so on the nose that it will drive you crazy. I think it would have served Parker better if he held off making this his first feature, and instead return to this story after having sharpened his skills on another feature, or maybe entrust his script to another director who has more experience. This is a story that deserves the most assured kind of execution, and the fact that it falls short of it’s own ambition is an unfortunate result for such a noble effort.
The other negative that’s working against the movie is the inevitable comparison it’s going to have with the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave (2013). The Steve McQueen directed film touches upon many of the same issues and explores many of the same horrific moments that defined this dark era in American history. But, where the comparison ends between the two is in their distinctive executions. 12 Years a Slave, also based on a true story, for the most part is a far more visceral and impactful film, mainly because it puts you the viewer into the middle of the horror, witnessing the events through the point of view of it’s subject Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), and it was unrelenting too. The Birth of a Nation has its eye-opening moments of horror too (even something as quietly unsettling as a little white girl playing with a slave girl who is dragged along with a rope leash around her neck), but it restrains itself by sticking to a biopic convention when telling it’s story. Where 12 Years a Slave was an experience, Nation just feels like a history lesson, albeit a very valuable one. But for something that was meant to be incendiary and thought provoking, Birth of a Nation almost seems to hold it’s audience off at a distance. It’s only until the finale where the revolt actually happens that we see signs of the kind of the kind of rage that Nate Parker wanted his movie to emulate, but to get there, the movie certainly takes it’s time. That being said, it does do a lot right, even in some better ways than 12 Years a Slave. The character development in this film is certainly stronger, albeit with a few stereotypical redneck-y bad guys thrown in there. One can not fault Nate Parker for making this kind of movie so soon in the wake of the similarly themed 12 Years, but some of the shortcomings in his film only feel more pronounced when the comparison is made.
But there is still plenty to admire about this film. First of all, Nate Parker does get strong performances across the board from all of his cast, and he himself manages to carry the film as well with his role. I would say that Nate makes a better actor at this point in his career than a director, though he is not without skill there as well. The character of Nat Turner is a challenging one to pull off, given the often grandiose sermons that he has deliver. In most other actors hands, I believe the role could have slipped too heavily into pomposity, but thankfully Nate takes a more reserved approach that still feels right whenever he goes for those grandiose moments. Some of the other performances are also strong. Though her character is a little underwritten, Aja Naomi King’s performance as Nat’s long tortured wife is still a strong one that really earns your sympathy throughout. Armie Hammer is also very strong in what ends up being the film’s most complicated role. What interested me about this movie was how it depicted the slave owners who were masters over Nat and his family. They are not the worst people in the world and at times they can even be sympathetic; until of course you remember the horrible institution that they are a part of. Hammer conveys this perfectly in his performance; showing that even decent human beings could be a part of something evil just because it was so ingrained into society at the time. I like that Nate Parker allowed for that kind of complexity with his characters, although there are some characters like Jackie Earle Haley’s Cobb that are a little too cartoonishly evil and rotten. Despite some of the problems with how the characters are written, it is good to see the actors making the most of their roles; even those in minor roles like Mark Boone Jr. and Colman Domingo. If there is anything that’s the movie’s saving grace, it’s definitely the cast.
What I’m sure most people are wondering about this movie is whether or not it’s message is going to resonate with audiences, and for some, spark them into action. The timing for this movie couldn’t be more perfect as African-American populations are growing more frustrated with the lack of justice given to them after the increasing number of fatal police shootings have dominated the headlines. A segment of our population being treated like second class citizens is going to find a lot of parallels in some of themes presented in The Birth of a Nation. Of course, slavery and police brutality are two different issues, but what will resonate for audiences is the way that contemporary society takes a blind eye to their issues, which is reflected in the way that slavery was treated as an institution during the setting of the movie. Nate Parker’s screenplay does not give a pass to compassionate, patronizing whites in his movie, as some of them are condemned heavily for perpetuating an institution that they know is unjust, and for saying that they know what is best for the slaves time and time again. Parker’s most incendiary statement made in the movie is showing how scripture was used by many in those days to perpetuate the practice of slavery, with Nat Turner becoming a literal tool in that practice. Though Turner himself was a man of faith, he sees the malice of his master’s plan and calls them out for it. By spotlighting this, Nate helps to show the way religion can be mishandled to promote something diabolical, and that the same practices are used today to subjugate and oppress other disenfranchised groups; all making it the film’s most potent message.
One wishes that Nate Parker’s skills as a director could’ve been a little stronger in order to help make the message at it’s center resonate better. Instead, we get a historical biopic about an important lost figure in American history that is certainly good, but could have been a lot better. As it stands, it’s a very strong first film for a director with a lot of promise. I certainly am interested in seeing what Nate will direct next; it might turn out much better, given that I’m sure he’s learned a few new things during the making of this film. I also do have to admire the passion behind this movie. You can tell this was a labor of love for him and for the most part it does succeed on shedding light on a piece of history that shouldn’t be a footnote. But, even still, I can’t overlook the faults that this movie has too. It’s awkwardly paced, thinly written, and doesn’t quite reach the heights that it’s trying to aim for. Perhaps with more of a body of work behind him, Nate Parker could have made something truly groundbreaking with this movie, but you can’t fault him for wanting to quickly realize something that he believed in. All this said, I don’t think you’ll find many people who will outright dislike this movie. It’s conventional in a way that will please most audiences, though I’m sure there will be a few who don’t think that it went far enough with it’s message. I for one admire that Nate took the risk to make this in the first place. It only remains to be seen if the movie can stand outside the shadow of his own past misdeeds. I believe that it did, but each other audience member will probably feel different. I think this will fall short of awards season favorite that all the pre-release hype made it out to be, but it still is an honorable film-making effort that’s intent on sparking a conversation this nation desperately needs to have.