By Michael Kaye
The Birth of a Nation (Review)
Before we get started, I'd like to briefly address the elephant in the room. I am well aware that there is controversy surrounding Nate Parker's past, and if that turns people off from supporting this movie, I completely understand. However, as a film fan, I choose to separate as best as I can the artist from the art. That's not going to be easy for a lot of people, because not only is Parker the star of the film, he's also the writer, director and one of the producers. But nevertheless, here is my review for The Birth of a Nation.
This movie tells the untold true story of Nat Turner, a former slave in America, who leads a liberation movement in 1831 to free African-Americans in Virgina that results in a violent retaliation from whites.
This is a story that is worthy of a big screen adaptation, especially since it's been erased from the history books. But as a movie, the sum of its parts is unfortunately greater than the whole. Here are my positives and negatives.
*Possible spoilers ahead*
I think the biggest highlight of this film is the acting. I like when actors step up to the director's chair because after having years of experience in front of the camera, they know exactly how to get the best performances from the entire cast. Nate Parker does do a good job bringing Nat Turner to life, but I think his supporting cast is even better. The more I see Armie Hammer on screen, the more I forgive him for The Lone Ranger, which is honestly just a fluke on an otherwise strong resume. Jackie Earle Haley is an amazing character actor, and here he is proving that once again as one of the law enforcers Raymond Cobb. Other great performances include Aja Naomi King as Nat's wife Cherry, Penelope Ann Miller as Elizabeth Turner and Colman Domingo as Hark.
As I mentioned before, the story of Nat Turner is an important story to tell. The history buff in me can look up the accuracy of the events later, but the film fan in me could honestly care less. I have to assume that Nate Parker made this movie with good intentions, perhaps because he views Nat Turner as a hero. Basically, it's no wonder the movie got a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival BEFORE the movie even started playing, as Sundance was happening shortly after the controversial announcement of the 88th Academy Award nominees.
The production design I thought was very done as well. There is some beautiful cinematography by Elliot Davis, especially when it comes to establishing shots. As for costumes and makeup, it definitely feels like I'm right there in the plantations in the 19th Century. Nothing looks too clean, and when the movie gets violent, you can feel every crack of the whip and every gunshot.
The last true positive I have is the score by Henry Jackman. This guy's probably my favorite composer not named John Williams or Alan Silvestri, and that's because he doesn't necessarily try to outshine the movie. He's simply there to provide whatever is needed for the scene, and sometimes what's needed is silence.
The problem with this movie can't just be identified by a list of mistakes, like there's nothing "bad" about it at all. However, there is an underlying feeling of "been there, done that" in the way this movie is told. I nicknamed this movie "12 years a Slaveheart" because on paper, it seems like Nate Parker wanted to make combine the action epic beats from Braveheart with the gravitas of 12 Years a Slave. Instead, the closest comparison is Free State of Jones from earlier in the year. In fact, whatever I had to say about that movie could more or less be applied here. As important as stories like this one are, I think it's time we move on from this era in history on the big screen.
The Birth of a Nation is by no means a bad movie. It's unfortunate that the controversy has potentially stunted Nate Parker's filmmaking career, because I genuinely did see a lot of potential in this movie. I'm not asking you to change your mind about the man and what he may or may not have done in his past, but if you are at all curious about the movie, than it's at least worth a matinee.
Now I want to hear from you guys. Have you seen The Birth of a Nation, and if so what did you think? Also, who are some filmmakers out there that you're able to separate the artist from the art? Drop your thoughts in the comments below, and stay tuned for my next review, which is a look back at Gavin O'Connor's 2011 MMA film Warrior, starring Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton!