Movie Review: The Birth of A Nation (2016)

Posted: March 11, 2017 in Drama
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birth of a nation

Nat Turner (Tony Espinosa, Nate Parker) was a slave born in 1800, in Virginia.  Nat developed an affinity for reading early on, helped along on his road to literacy by the widow of his first master, Elizabeth Turner, (Penelope Ann Miller)who teaches Nat to read the Bible.    When Elizabeth’s husband dies,  his brother, Samuel (Griffin Freeman, Armie Hammer) takes over ownership of Nat, by this time Nat has gained some renown as a preacher.  As Nat’s fame spreads, the Reverend Wallthall (Mark Boone Jr.) and Samuel hatch a plan to use Nat’s religious fervor to calm slaves’ thoughts of rebellion.  It works for a time, Nat is happy with his new wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) and his daughter.  After Nat witnesses the brutal force-feeding of a slave, and hearing of his wife’s rape, and his friend Hark’s (Coleman Domingo) wife Esther (Gabrielle Union) also being raped. Nat is at a crossroads, what does he do to end his enslavement?

The story of Nat Turner is a powerful one, a young boy with a fondness of reading, which becomes a religious fervor, he seems like the modern day Moses, leading his people out of bondage, but Nate Parker rewrites history, and turns Nat Turner’s story into more of a personal vendetta, instead of a moral crusade.  What is the relevance of Nat Turner’s story today?  The relevance of his story to someone watching it today should be about self-sufficiency, only an individual can save himself from whatever circumstance he faces.  Nat Turner exhibited such self-sufficiency by learning to read, and preach, but I fear that the lesson that what most young people will glean from this movie is violence is an acceptable way to achieve a goal, but violence only begets more violence.  Vengeance might feel good, but vengeance is ultimately up to God.  Leaving aside the Bible, look at history, John Brown led an armed slave insurrection just before the Civil War, and died trying to end slavery.  The Civil War itself resulted in tens of thousands of dead, and still black people were treated like second class citizens.  It was only after the non-violent civil rights movement, where Martin Luther King seized the high moral ground again, and America saw the brutality with which black people were treated. Nat Turner had the high moral ground, he lost it the minute he picked up a weapon in anger. Parker tends to gloss over the self-sufficiency and dwell on the violence, and that’s where this movie goes wrong.

The acting is only so-so.  Nate Parker is not a convincing enough actor to make the transition that is required to make Nat Turner into what he ended up being.   Armie Hammer is not Michael Fassbender, as hard as he may try.  The women are better in their roles.  Aja Naomi King imbues Cherry with a nurturing, tender spirit, her character is not treated well, and deserved better.  Penelope Ann Miller is also good, but her role diminishes as the movie moves on. Gabrielle Union is almost invisible in this film, blink and you’ll miss her, but her character is treated savagely, despite the lack of screen time. Better acting, especially from the male leads would have made the story more compelling.

The direction is ok, while some of the landscapes are visually appealing, the pacing is very slow, and that doesn’t help the storytelling.  Parker, doesn’t get good performances from himself or Armie Hammer, there is a scene near the end of the movie where Turner is visually likened to the Passion of Jesus, and while that is effective, it’s one of the few scenes that grabs the viewer.

The Birth of a Nation:  A Turn-ing Point In History.





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