For Reel

The Birth of a Nation (2016)
October 29, 2016, 12:08 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Nate Parker
3 Stars
the-birth-of-a-nationFor all of the gruesome horrors on display in The Birth of a Nation, its biggest strengths is that it is often a film of extraordinary empathy. In its best moments, the film is about looking—throughout the picture, Nate Parker’s Nat Turner will often make eye-contact with a slave at an auction or at a plantation he is visiting, and the holding on the image allows the audience to imagine the complexities of emotion going on underneath the glance. Later, as Turner begins developing into the revolutionary he will become, these glances don’t so much suggest sorrow and resilience but a new sense of rebellion. Similarly, the transition happens in the way that Turner deals with the scripture—if he spends the early parts of the film reading passages that will please the slave-owners who witness his preaching, he later finds ways of communicating a spirit of rebellion to the slaves in a way that the slave-owners aren’t privy too (they are foolish enough to think they are the ones who fit the victim narrative). The Birth of a Nation, unfortunately, is not consistently enough propelled by such subtleties, perhaps best encapsulated by a score which aspires for grand but feels more gaudy. The film often argues that violence of any kind is a travesty—even once the killings start, director Parker finds a moment to show Turner vomiting behind a barn—but Parker’s treatment of the material begins to feel simplified and fanciful. The recurring appearance of a villain played by Jackie Earle Haley don’t serve a narrative of oppression, rather turns the film into an absurd revenge story… only, unlike Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Parker’s stone-faced dramatization doesn’t have a spirit of rebellion in itself, rather gives itself over to the machinery of typical Hollywood schmaltz.

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