Nat Turner Came, and Went: “The Birth Of A Nation” – A Review

Two very different and prevalent backstories have helped ascend Nate Parker’s directorial debut The Birth Of A Nation, – the story of the Virginian slave-preacher Nat Turner who led a slave rebellion –  to obtain nationwide attention. 

The first one came from the adulation it received back in January at the Sundance Film Festival as it won the Grand Jury Prize, accompanied by a standing ovation, and then followed by a record-breaking $17.5 million deal for Fox Searchlight Pictures for the worldwide rights. Mind you, this came around the same time the #OscarsSoWhite controversy was rampant. Remember that? It was when a lot of people were outraged that the Academy doled out a lack of nominations to people of colour. The Birth Of A Nation was seen as a needed, yet premature, antidote to the Oscar diversity issue.

The second backstory stems from a 1999 rape case  resurfacing where Nate Parker and Jean Celestin, his friend and the film’s co-writer, were charged for the crime and then later acquitted of it. The victim committed suicide a few years ago, and her brother spoke out against Parker, claiming he got off on a technicality. The Nate Parker backlash came from all angles. People were saying you shouldn’t support a rapist; others were saying he wasn’t found guilty, so we should let it go; others were saying you can’t separate the man from the art; conversely, others claimed you should separate the man from the art; people expressed their opinion that this is another attempt to bring a brother down; other people said that Parker should hold himself more accountable.

That last point might be the biggest gripe most can agree on. Since news broke about the case as Parker has been promoting the movie, people have accused him of not being sensitive enough and being too dismissive, imploring people to instead focus on the art and to move forward. Okay, so if we choose to “focus on the art”, like the people who watched the movie at Sundance did, where the groundswell began for the movie to get Oscar attention in 2017, my question is, what did I miss?

After watching the movie’s first trailer, it got me in anticipation mode. I found the trailer striking, affecting and I was awaiting for its theatrical release. To be honest, part of me was trying to show support for black, ambitious filmmakers, since they seldom see the opportunity to be in this position. But I realized this isn’t the early 90s anymore, where one felt an “obligation” to support the John Singletons, the Hughes Brothers and the Spike Lees. Thankfully, they’ve forged a path for the next generations. Nate Parker, who not only directed and co-wrote the film, but also produced it, stars as Nat Turner. This was his first feature as a director and, unfortunately, it shows.

It’s hard not to compare this movie to other slave movies, even though it is one. I say this because it felt like Parker wanted to make this aggrandizing film about a man who overcame unimaginable odds to become a hero. Hell, a superhero even, since you see Nat Turner get shot during battle and he somehow doesn’t bleed out. My eyebrows hadn’t furrowed that bad in a while.

The Birth of A Nation

Another eye-rolling, eyebrow-raising factor was Parker trying hard to pin Nat Turner as this man chosen by the Gods to do great things because he had three perfectly aligned dots in the middle of his chest, (could’ve chalked this up as a birthmark, but whatever, let’s roll with it) and having Mrs. Turner, the white matriarch of the plantation, look at Nat like some unicorn because he had the "ability" to read. As Mrs. Turner tells Nat’s mother that she wants to take him into the big house to keep teaching him after discovering this "phenomenal" trait about him, I could feel Nat’s mom thinking,”Bitch! Niggas can read too! We just don’t wanna get killed for it” (Nat’s father was about to get killed for trying to “outsmart” a white man earlier in the film).

You then see Nat have these visions, implying he was meant for something bigger and he was truly chosen. Now, I’m not super familiar with the Nat Turner story, but this all felt a bit too fabricated (it’s a Hollywood film, so it’s to be expected), way too heavy-handed and not fully earned. You don’t feel as roused as you should be after spending two hours with this narrative, and part of it comes from the filmmaking.

You can applaud Parker for making a film of this scale with limited resources and trying to make something big out of something small, but you still see the amateur quality of the movie, from the direction to the unbalanced editing and the Oscar-bait-y music. I’ll take an armed black man riding a horse surrounded by whites to Rick Ross’s “100 Black Coffins”, instead of what I heard and saw in Parker’s film, as anachronistic and fantastical as that may be.

And that’s the thing that struck me. Django Unchained is a revenge-fantasy that felt more grounded, and as unsettling as 12 Years A Slave may be, it’s a lot more effective and earnest. The Birth Of A Nation felt too palatable for a film set in this period with that kind of story. Some gruesome events occur, but they’re either unseen or they fail to display the right and needed brazenness. It may be unfair to compare Parker’s work to the work of accomplished and polished filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Steve McQueen, but while I was watching Damien Chazelle’s debut film Whiplash, another Sundance hit, I thought about how Scorsese-an his filmmaking felt at times.

For those who feel that “obligation” to see this film, you can tell the feeling to kick rocks. We’re currently in a place where black creators have either shown or are proving their mettle, like Ava Duvernay with Selma and Queen Sugar, or Donald Glover’s Atlanta. I don’t know how The Birth Of A Nation will measure its success; it'll probably be through the box office sales or perhaps during awards season. Who knows? Even if it fails, and some dumbass wants to come out with the “black people can’t make films” notion, look at what Ryan Coogler is doing. I’m sure he would’ve done wonders with this material. Sadly, in this case, Parker didn't.


written by The W


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