Friday, October 14, 2016

Movie Review: THE BIRTH OF A NATION (2016)

The Birth of a Nation (2016) is a film that tells the story of Nat Turner, a slave preacher in the South in the early 19th century who lead a brief but impactful slave uprising. This film is written, directed, and stars Nate Parker. It was very much a passion project of his and made a huge splash at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year breaking records for size of the acquisition deal it got from Fox Searchlight. This film deals with a tough subject area and has some extremely powerful moments but has some trouble in its flow and emotional development and connection as a film.

There is a lot of good things in this film. I thought that the production had a very good sense of place and nothing felt particularly fake on screen. I thought this was effective in transporting me to this time period and adding a larger emotional investment to the story. On that subject, I also thought the film was generally well shot. There were a few amateurish moments but overall it looked really good and was effective as a visual matter.

In general, Parker does a good job in directing this film. I think the most powerful thing he did in that capacity (and in his capacity as a screenwriter) was the way he explored themes and emotions predominantly through silent contemplation and visual cues instead of dialogue or internal thought processes. We get to see Nat Turner grow up and have a very unique experience because he sees a lot of horror yet he lives with slavers that, in comparison, don’t mistreat him certainly as much as we see from others. I think with the way they explored this theme, and theme surrounding Sam (Armie Hammer), the son in slaveholder family and eventual owner of Nat, of trying to not be awful yet having to be to fit in with society and just being awful by growing up as a product of this world. There is a lot of power to how Parker shows these things and by the time you reach Nat Turner’s turn to eventually wanting to incite a rebellion you get why and how he got there and the merits of what he is doing. This makes him an effective protagonist and enriches the story.

This film also has many powerful scenes. Although I don’t think Parker went in as directly or horrifyingly as something like 12 Years a Slave I think he came pretty close and there is some real horror to this film of what people did to other people for a disturbingly long time. Slavery is horrible and Parker, like many before him, makes this point powerfully with solid performances, cinematography, and circumstances that occur throughout this film. Parker is the focus of the film and certainly has the most to do and he gives a real strong performance here. If you’re not emotionally impacted by what he does on screen and how he plays scenes with so much pain so well I just don’t think you have a soul. It was subtle at times and wonderfully layered throughout. I also thought that Armie Hammer and Aja Naomi King gave good supporting performances which really made the story all the more compelling.

This film is far from perfect, however, and fails to live up to the standard I think it tries to reach. For starters, outside of Parker, Hammer, and King I didn’t think any of the other actors did a particularly good job. Most performances were fairly one note other than that core trio and I didn’t really get invested in anyone else in the film. I also thought that some of the shots in this film, and some screenwriting choices to add weird surrealist or prophetic elements, didn’t work very well and felt lower than the material covered in the film.

My biggest problem with this film is a writing/editing issue. I felt that this film was a collection of powerful scenes that lacked the stitching to make me care more. This film has the benefit of buy in from the get-go because this guy did something heroic and fought against a really horrifying evil of the time, however to be a good film beyond the kind of innate buy in you have to draw a film that makes me care more as an audience member. I thought with the smart emotional layers it showcased in the characters it needed better interstitial fabric to make that pay off. I really got in a cycle of seeing scene-cut-scene-cut-scene and not a flow of the story which seriously damaged my perspective on this film.

Overall, I think that The Birth of a Nation (2016) is a film with a lot of good qualities and tells an important story but fails to deliver the “perfect” film or the overwhelmingly powerful film that it probably should have been or that was billed out of Sundance. It has some great scenes, themes, and performances but seriously lacks the interstitial tissue to make it a better film and has a lot of one note characters used to simply fill out the world that they are living in. I would recommend this film on the grounds of the importance of the story itself and for everyone to make up their own mind but I didn’t personally think it lived up to that story.

Ryan’s Score: 6.5/10

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