The Birth of a Nation SPOILER-FREE Review
The Birth of a Nation has really been at the center of a lot of controversy. Initial reviews came out for it a long time ago, and critics praised it across the board as the front-runner for the Academy Awards this year. But then, rape allegations for writer, director and star Nate Parker came into the media, and everybody began to either skip the film altogether or give it negative reviews based upon their perception of Parker. I am a strong believer in separating the art from the artist. A lot has happened in the personal lives of people like Woody Allen and Mel Gibson, but I still go out to see their films because my first and foremost passion is movies. I don't think this discredits at all what people have done in their personal lives. If someone is a rapist, then they need to be tried and punished. But I'm not going to let my personal perception of that person impact how I watch or interpret the film, because I think that would be unfair to all the other hand prints in the movie. Parker isn't the only one who made this film. There are thousands of people who've had their hands in it, and it would be an injustice to them and their hard work if we maligned or avoided the film solely because of Parker. Before I got into this review, I just had to get all of that out of the way. To move on, The Birth of a Nation is a bold and powerful film that is incredibly relevant to today, with an impeccable performance by Nate Parker.
Nat Turner (Parker) is a literate slave who lives his life learning the Gospel, and preaching it to other slaves. After a series of events, Turner decides he needs to take it upon himself to lead an uprising in order to show slaves everywhere that they have power in numbers.
I loved this movie. I wouldn't say I quite liked it as much as 12 Years a Slave, but it's right up there. It's powerful and extremely effective. Its portrayal of slave life is absolutely gut-wrenching. You feel the darkness and the despair in every day. The art direction and costume design is flawless, because you don't feel like you're just watching a movie about the 1800's; you feel like you are simply there. I was so invested and immersed in this world, and a lot of that is due to Parker's direction. This is his first feature film that he's made, and I was blown away by his ability to use the camera. He effectively moves in and around this timeline, telling the story of Nat Turner. We all knew what was going to happen at the end, but the set-up and building his character was essential in making us feel invested in the events to come. And I think Parker, for a first time director, did a marvelous job telling this story right.
The film's other main strength is its performances, mainly Parker's. He's my front-runner for Best Lead Actor right now. And it would be a shame if the Academy refused to recognize him because of the controversy. Like I said before, regardless of what happened in his personal life, he gave an incredible performance, and should be recognized for it. I've never really seen him act before, and he absolutely floored me. His character was a very layered individual: he wants to show strength, but finds only it hard to maintain hope and faith through these trying times. And Parker just completely knocked it out of the park. Aja Naomi King is also great as his wife, Cherry. She didn't have as much of a presence in the film as Turner, but whenever she was on screen she was great. And Armie Hammer was good in his role as Turner's owner. His character's writing wasn't the best, but Hammer was very good in the role.
The cinematography in this film is also beautiful. It's some of the best I've seen in a movie this year. I can think of several shots where they were single-handedly more effective in communicating the message or tugging on emotions than even some of Parker's best moments as an actor in the film. My favorite part of the entire movie was the final shot of the film. I still think The Light Between Oceans (read that review here) had a wider range of cinematography in it than The Birth of a Nation, but I think this movie's shots were far more dynamic. The music was also something that stood out to me. Parker uses a nice blend of "black music" and the regular score to draw you in further into this world. You feel the culture and struggles of an entire race seeping through this music, and it made the experience of watching this film all the more striking. This film really demonstrates the strength of music and its unity. I don't think we had as powerful of a musical moment in this movie as we did in 12 Years a Slave, but the overall use of music worked to effectively draw you in and to get an emotional reaction out of you.
My problems with the movie really stems from the third act. It's at this point (and this is abundantly clear in trailers and synopses, so it's not really a spoiler) that Turner has begun his rebellion. But he's using the Bible and God as his reason to commit mass murder. I'm not trying to get political or talk about religion in this review, but the Christian faith does not preach violence. Had the film taken the position that yes, this is what Turner did but it wasn't the best way to handle the situation, or if we had seen some confliction in Turner's decision to lead this rebellion, then it would have made more sense. But Turner uses God as an excuse to commit murder. Not just quiet deaths but brutal be-headings and hacking people with axes in their sleep. It turned him more into a religious extremist than a hero, and that was a problem. This rebellion should have been the pay-off for all the build up that was the first two acts of the film, and instead it just felt really wrong.
Overall, I loved this movie and it's one of my favorite films of the year right now. It took a bold step even before you saw a single frame of the film, by taking the same name as a 1915 white supremacist, KKK propaganda film, and that just shows this film's intentions. The Birth of a Nation attacks slavery relentlessly, showing us the life of Nat Turner as he grows up to be a literate slave and a preacher. Nate Parker is phenomenal in the role, and deserves to be nominated for an Oscar. Aja Naomi King and Armie Hammer are also good, but were outshined by Parker's incredible performance every time they shared the screen. The cinematography is also gorgeous, with several shots on their own being some of my favorite parts of the film. And the music was utilized nicely in order to add to the experience. But the problems for me stem from the third act, when the film inadvertently paints Turner as a religious extremist instead of a hero. The movie, however, takes the position that he is a hero, but from his actions we see he is really using the Bible to excuse mass murder. It didn't sit right with me, and it wasn't the pay-off I wanted for such a magnificent film leading up to it. It was hard to cheer him on when you knew what he was doing was wrong. But in the end, The Birth of a Nation overcomes the controversy surrounding it to deliver on a powerful and striking film, headlined by an Oscar-worthy performance from Nate Parker.
What do you think? Have you seen The Birth of a Nation? Did you like the film? Leave your (spoiler-free) thoughts in the comments section below.
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