Few films have been hyped up as much as Nate Parker’s directorial debut “The Birth Of A Nation,” and to its credit, it had quite the story built around it. A rouge and uncompromising vision of 19th century slave rebellion as seen through the eyes of a suspectedly up-and-coming rookie in the film industry. A passion project seven years in the making that was lauded at Sundance and was subsequently acquired by Fox Searchlight for a record-setting price of 17.5 million dollars. It seemed like the publicity for “nation” was served on a silver platter from it’s inception, especially given its release correlating with modern uprisings such as the black lives matter movement.
However, its seems that Nate Parker’s dream project would be quickly be under fire as a resurfacing of Parker’s 1999 rape allegations seems to have put a dark cloud around the premere. Parker, along with an unnamed accomplice, was accused of sexually assaulting an 18-year old college student in her Penn State dorm room, an accusation Parker denies, insisting that his actions were consensual.
Although Parker was eventually acquitted, the victim’s family was doubtful about the verdict and the alleged victim committed suicide in 2012, stirring the pot even more. Because of this resurfacing, the film’s “hype” has suffered immensely. It opened at number six at the box office and would eventually plummet to ten in only its second weekend, . This combined with only lukewarm reviews has made the experience a thoroughly underwhelming one for Nate Parker and company. So in the end does the film live up to its early hype? Or does it only compliment the negative situation of its creator?
Well from a purely technical standpoint, “Nation” is… well good, but definitely not great. Even with its lack of focus in the narrative and difficulty connecting to many of the characters’ intuition, the film still manages to tell a cohesive, and powerful story to the big screen, albeit in a fairly conventional manner.
The film covers an account of the events leading up to the 1830’s slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, as his exposure to unspeakable inhumanity and slave cruelty motivates him to form a small militia and rebel against their masters. The film starts out with the young Nat Turner (Parker) as he is given a revelation in a spiritual ritual that he is some sort of chosen one that will bring peace to his fellow men. As he grows up on a cotton plantation, Parker witnesses both the outright cruelty of some masters and the more benevolent nature of others. A moment where a master breaks a slave’s teeth for refusing to eat is immediately juxtaposed with moments like where the adult Turner is being protected from the cruelty of another master by his own, Samuel Turner. Another moment of fortune for Turner arrives when he is personally taken under the headmaster’s wife in order to study the bible and learn to become a preacher for the other slaves.
As time goes on, it is eventually revealed to us that the white slave-owners are only using Turner to preach more selective passages from the good book in order to keep the slaves from revolting. Turner reads from 1st Peter 2:18: “Servants, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but even to those who are unreasonable.” Even his seemingly good and gentle master Samuel Turner turns a darker side in the pressure of trying to impress another plantation owner’s family during a dinner party. He accuses Turner of defiance and floggs him that very night. This moment becomes the breaking point for Turner as he finally decides to take the situation in his own hands and fight for his and his fellow slaves freedom.
The film was the directorial debut for Nate Parker, and at times this can definitely show. The Cinematography ranges from being conventionally acceptable to just stunningly bleak. Many times there are too many greys and whites with not enough contrastive color that make its seem like the film could have been a black and white picture. However the greatest strength of the film is the direction. Parker rises to the occasion with a great amount of passion and confidence. At many times we see his visual intuition at work, such as the moment of Turner witnessing monumental cruelty causing him to change his sermon accordingly to motivate his fellow slaves to question authority. Moments like these showcase a certain amount of maturity on Parker’s part when it comes to telling a story in a film format, something that many amateurs lack. This makes up for the pretty conventional script, as we find that the only lines that aren’t either ones from other period pieces or lines for plot-points are the inclusion of random bible verses.
The film is not by any means subtle. The characters aren’t entirely fleshed out as Parker makes it clear that his film is made up of only heroes and villains with no room for any grey areas. However in the context of this film, that was never Parker’s intention to begin with. It is supposed to be an impassioned, even arguably more one-sided take on a historical event serving as a cautionary tale of the unfortunate consequences when one group of people oppresses another to a breaking point.
Although in my opinion a more nuanced and logically-minded view is always better in any argument, this film successfully takes the reigns of an impassioned historical event and breathes new life into it for a new generation, even with its technical shortcomings and the debatable ethics of Turner’s actions, (he ended up killing many innocents in his rebellion, including women, children and even other blacks). In the end, “Birth of a Nation” is essentially Nate Parker’s own birth as a filmmaker. Despite the film’s obvious flaws, the passion and directing skills of the filmmaker leave room for better films in the future.
Photo Credit: Entertainment Weekly