The life of a film can be a very perplexing history to follow. In early 2016, an independent film burst on to the scene with some great accolades at the Sundance Film Festival. It was picked up for distribution by Fox Searchlight with a nationwide release set for October. Then, controversy arose. The writer/director/star of the film was previously accused of sexual assault and talk of boycotts came to the forefront. October arrived and the film finally became public. That film is Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, the true story of Nat Turner, the slave-preacher who led a famous slave rebellion in the early 1830s that would intensify the American discussion of slavery towards an eventual Civil War. The question at hand, could the positive reviews overcome the negative controversy surrounding the film. The verdict: The Birth of a Nation stands on a wealth of artistic merit worthy of celebration independent of the external conflicts surrounding those who made the film.
The Good: First and foremost, the cinematography of this film is exceptional. Not only are the visuals incredibly beautiful, they are also well composed; mise-en-scene is a huge strength for this film from start to finish. The gorgeous visuals work in stark juxtaposition with the fairly graphic violence and unsettling mistreatment of the story’s characters. Lighting is used in a very subtle but effective way to relate scene significance and hone the viewer’s attention on important details. Camerawork is used cleverly to reveal information and accentuate emotional undertones and really drives the story.
The sound design is also a terrific attribute of this film. While the average person will not walk out commenting on it, the trained ear will note a very rich and complex sound design. There is a very obvious attempt by this film to demonstrate the serenity of nature (God’s design) through sound and visuals in contrast to the hellish existence of the slaves reminiscent of The Thin Red Line’s similar strategy. Quite simply, it works.
The narrative is overall pretty strong with some hiccups I will discuss. It is entertaining and holds your attention, moving fairly well-paced towards the conclusion we all anticipate before the film even begins. Most importantly, the film itself has very little to do with the actual events on screen and everything to do with its social commentary on the continuing racial tensions in America and even Hollywood specifically. There are numerous lines delivered in the film that could easily be delivered in direct relation to such conflicts today rather than as smaller pieces of a greater narrative. This is a credit, of course, to writer Nate Parker, who also directed and starred in the film as Nat Turner. His performances, along with the vast majority (but not all) supporting roles, are emotional and effective in telling the story. Parker faced a great deal of resistance in making this film and yet every aspect that he touched was brilliant.
The Bad: I’ve discussed the fantastic visuals of the film but I would be remised if I failed to discuss the flip-side of that coin. The sharp clarity of the visuals provides an incredibly vivid picture and thus requires careful attention to detail. There were some times that this betrayed the film, causing it to feel a bit too clean and staged to be believed. Production design was often pristine and, though aesthetically pleasing, ineffective in building the gruesome nature of our characters’ existence at times.
I referenced some slips in acting before with promise of expansion. There were a few supporting characters who seem to be somewhat limited in their depth and ability, causing certain scenes or bits to feel like, well, a small independent film instead of an Oscar contender. These are limited and not overwhelming when they do arise.
Maybe the most difficult obstacle for this film to overcome, is the close similarities to another recent Oscar winner about slavery, 12 Years a Slave. The stories are different but also hold striking similarities at times, relying on many of the same thematic ideas and plot points. At times, it feels almost like an unintentional spin off of the aforementioned film rather than a film that stands on its own.
Lastly, the biggest detraction from this film’s worth was the final act. The movie builds up towards the historic rebellion led by the protagonist, motivating him and providing a great deal of emotional support from the audience along the way. However, when the rebellion itself comes, it is carried out and finished in a few minutes. The rebellion itself lasted two days and resulted in the death of over 50 people. It doesn’t feel like the “success” that it truly was. The action of this film moves along pretty quickly and an additional 10 minutes of rebellion would have done more justice to the historic event. Understandably, the climax of the story is not the rebellion but the final sacrificial scenes that feel, like much of the film, like a page out of Braveheart. However, the limited poetic justice of the film is crammed into just a few quick scenes and, as such, appears to not be much of a success.
The Ugly Truth: Rating (1-5) 4 (see it in theaters)
The Birth of a Nation is the first contender of the year. It isn’t perfect but considering the extensive lengths that Parker had to go to just to make the film, it is an impressive presentation. I will note, it is a difficult watch, similar to the previously mentioned 12 Years a Slave, but that should not deter a screening (I don’t ever plan to watch Room, Beasts of No Nation, or American Sniper again but that doesn’t make them bad films). Visuals and sound, teamed with a timely narrative, are definitely worthy of the price of admission. Hopefully, the Academy will look past the “controversy” surrounding the film and judge it on its own merits. Should they do so, they too will find a film worthy of the Sundance accolades it received as well as Oscar consideration.