The Birth of a Nation: Film Review

birth

The Birth of a Nation reportedly sold for the biggest amount ever at the Sundance Film Festival, received a huge standing ovation and critical acclaim but its rating has been decreasing since more people have seen it and it’s easy to understand why. It’s an important and powerful story but it is very flawed.

Nate Parker (who also co-wrote and directed it) stars as Nat Turner, who is born into slavery on a cotton plantation in Virginia. He is taught how to read as a child and he uses this skill to learn the Bible and preach it to slaves on nearby land. He eventually realises he has been made to preach passages which condone slavery, when there are plenty of others which argue against it. He orchestrates a bloody uprising against the slave owners but he eventually realises retaliation isn’t the answer.

I must applaud Parker for having the determination to raise the cash and bring this incredible story to the screen. I can see why he wanted it told – it sends an important message (especially given the current climate), it’s maddening and I was disgusted and grossed out by the treatment of slaves. However, usually scenes of this nature and tales of racial injustice move me to the point of tears but on this occasion, I felt little sadness and that’s because the film itself isn’t executed perfectly. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what is wrong with it but after such hype, it just felt very average or like an unpolished, more bloody and violent version of 12 Years A Slave.

There are also moments which felt overly dramatic, there was perhaps too many scenes of slave owners brutalising their charges and the women don’t have much to do except get married, raped or have kids so none of them – including Aja Naomi King and Gabrielle Union – have a moment to really speak, let alone shine. I’m a huge fan of Union and I didn’t even realise it was her for ages cos she didn’t say anything. Parker’s own performance was good but not amazing but I liked Armie Hammer as his owner because his feelings towards his slaves felt conflicted.

I liked it, but I didn’t love it, and I’m not sure where the hype has come from. It’s an important story to be told and I must praise Parker for shedding a light on it but it’s just a shame a Nat Turner story wasn’t told as well as it could have been – it should have been moving, gut-wrenching and soul destroying, but it wasn’t and I’m still not sure why.

Originally seen as part of the 60th BFI London Film Festival. Released Friday 9th December

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