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On The Screen Reviews: The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation is a great made for TV movie. There. I said it.
Nation is being billed as an important movie — a story that demands to be heard. I hear it, but my most anticipated movie of the year has left me completely empty.
Since it’s double win in January at the Sundance Film Festival taking home both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize, Nation was the movie to beat in the 2017 Oscar race. The film was picked up by distributor Fox Searchlight who ushered movies like Slumdog Millionaire, 12 Years a Slave and Birdman to Best Picture glory. It’s been the most talked about movie of 2016…but for all the wrong reasons.
Director Nate Parker said he wanted to make a film that fell in line with films like Braveheart and Defiance, where the opposed rose up against the oppressors. But let me tell you, this is no Braveheart.
The film chronicles the life of Nat Turner and the slave rebellion he led in Virginia in 1831. It’s an important story to tell, especially following the controversial #OscarsSoWhite 2015 year that put the Academy in ill-favored territory for it’s lack of diversity. Nate Parker was going to be the saving grace for the Academy this year — he wrote, directed, produced and starred in the film. There’s one slight complication though – Parker’s controversial past.
Variety recently published a story re-surfacing rape allegations made against Parker. Seventeen years ago, when Parker was a student wrestler at Penn State, he and his teammate Jean Celestin (who has a story credit on The Birth of a Nation) stood trial for allegedly raping a woman in Parker’s dorm room. Parker was acquitted; Celestin was convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to six months in prison, but the verdict was overturned on appeal. The victim killed herself in 2012.
Oscar history tells us that there are no secrets during award seasons and all closeted skeletons find their way into the spotlight. Even though Parker has been in other movies, and his history is documented on Wikipedia, more fame = more spotlight = more scrutiny. This isn’t the Nate Parker story though, it’s the Nat Turner story, but Parker, who has not been accused of assault since the trial, has been compared to R. Kelly, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen and Bill Cosby. Many critics are struggling to separate the art from the artist, and Parker’s interviewing skills are not working in his favor.
When he was first asked about the rape – during an interview to which he brought his six-year-old daughter – he did not mention the victim, but said, “Seventeen years ago, I experienced a very painful moment in my life. It resulted in it being litigated. I was cleared of it. That’s that.”
Despite the allegations surrounding Parker, I was able to separate the artist from his art. And to be honest, the art is mediocre at best. Important? Absolutely. A great film? Absolutely not.
The film fails to deliver the raw impact of previous films on the atrocities of slavery.It follows a very paint-by-numbers exposition of Nat Turner’s story and the brutality of the Antebellum South. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Steve McQueen’s powerhouse 12 Years a Slave. Although 12 Years wasn’t about the resistance, it delivered more punch in every capacity that Nation couldn’t quite muster. When you compare the two, the latter feels like a cheap knockoff burdened with amateur film-making. There’s a brief scene in 12 Years with Paul Giamatti who delivers more emotional punch in 60 seconds than any of the actors in The Birth of a Nation. I’m not saying that I didn’t care about their plight, but there was something severely lacking. Parker’s performance is worthy of mention, but other characters felt underdeveloped, rushed and even forced.
Biblical metaphors are blatantly scattered throughout the film to the point where I felt like I was being force-fed the material. Movies like this shouldn’t feel forced; it should feel like you’re actually watching history on screen, not like a Lifetime movie. Scenes including an ear of corn literally bleeding was the last straw in metaphorical imagery that I could handle. Other scenes felt tailor-made and poorly edited. Matt Donato says it best adding: “Same goes for an angelic incarnation of Nat’s wife (forgotten in plot after a savage beating), who appears wearing angle wings that look like they were purchased at a local costume store.” The message and intentions of the brutality of slavery and injustice were clear, but the execution didn’t quite hit the mark.
“The reality is, I wrote this film from the standpoint of a young man who didn’t have heroes growing up. I lived in an environment where the idea of a black, intellectual person of faith, that had integrity, respected his community and was willing to sacrifice for everyone, was an oxymoron. These things just didn’t seem to exist in the same space, ever.” Parker via Deadline
Parker wanted his movie to inspire a movement, but I left feeling uninspired. I applaud Parker for his efforts, but I think he wore too many hats in this film juggling the roles of producer/writer/actor/director and the cinematic focus got lost in translation.
While Parker’s past may or may not influence Oscar voters come award season, this isn’t an Oscar-worthy film to even include in the conversation. Although Parker’s history left a bad taste in my mouth personally, I didn’t let it influence my opinion of this movie. An important story doesn’t always translate into an exceptional film, and it’s okay to admit that.
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