“The Birth of Nation” has been on my radar ever since the wide praises coming out of the Sundance Film Festival was heard. The film’s distribution rights were sold for around 20 million dollars; this was looking like it was poised to be the best film to come out this year. Of course recently the movie has been mirrored in a media controversy after star, writer and director Nate Parker’s past had resurfaced. Ironically named “Birth of a Nation” deliberately to bring a much stronger and positive message to that title, it is now steeped in its own controversy not unlike the original 1915 D.W. Griffith groundbreaking pro-Ku Klux Klan film. Of course that presents a difficulty with approaching the subject matter. The only way to view this film is on its own as a piece of art. The conversation of Parker’s past is a separate conversation to have (and perhaps a more important one at that).
I was able to attend an early film screening just a few days ago. I came away from the film recognizing that director Nate Parker had crafted a visually well-made and staged film with some very good performances by both the director himself and many of his costars. However, I also came away feeling very cold. What “Birth of Nation” ultimately lacked for me was power and emotional depth. I felt surprised by this considering the film’s subject matter of the Nat Turner Slave revolt in 1831. It’s a story that isn’t often told and had great potential cinematically (much like Gary Ross’s “The Free State of Jones”) but failed to enthrall me personally.
To start off on a positive note, Parker’s visual style is nothing short of incredible. The cinematography by Elliot Davis is beautiful and haunting in every sense of the word. Parker also fills the screen with wonderful and subtle symbolism that appears throughout his 120-minute-long historical epic. Henry Jackson’s musical score equally adds to the mood and atmosphere of the picture. Jackson has really proven himself as a talented film composer over the past few years with his work on “Captain Phillips”, “Captain America” and “Kingsman” movies.
Not only that Parker assembles a crew of really talented actors. These aren’t the big stars but this film is filled with the right actors and actresses to fill the roles with. Star Nate Parker is able to showcase his talent for nuanced performances Armie Harmer does a great job, Jackie Earle Haley, Gabberlie Union, Penelope Ann Miller, Mark Boone Junior; there is no bad performances in this movie.
Ultimately though there is something missing from this would be masterpiece, connection. Throughout I couldn’t help but feel a disconnect. It was something I couldn’t quite explain upon my exiting of the theater. The acting, the technical filmmaking craftsmanship is all there but it was the connection I was missing. I didn’t feel connected to the characters on screen or felt myself getting wrapped up in their story. For all the things this movie does well the way the story is told is pretty generic. It goes about telling its tale from plot point to plot point without digging deep into itself. Parker, while does show many scenes of brutal violence (especially during the revolt itself), he shy’s away from showing the harsher aspects of slave life. The main historical character of Nate Turner didn’t feel fleshed out and was a bit sterile in terms of characterization. His transformation didn’t feel earned (as with many third act plot points).
The best comparison I can make for this feeling was when I saw “The Passion of the Christ” (which tells the story of Jesus’s crucifixion). “The Passion of the Christ” is an expertly well-crafted film by the often underrated talents of director Mel Gibson. From a technical perspective it is undeniable an incredibly well made film. However, the story it’s telling didn’t do much for me. Which has nothing to do with my religious beliefs (I grew up Catholic). The movie hopes that by showing struggle alone it will get me to get invested into the main character (this case being Jesus). But seeing struggle alone doesn’t make for a compelling character. I felt less like I was watching Jesus being beaten but more just a random man getting beaten. It’s horrible to watch but it doesn’t engage me. “The Birth of Nation” suffers from that same problem. It hopes that the struggle of slaves is enough to get you invested in the character’s stories. The movie uses this as a mindset as a crutch for character development but it ends up working against it.
It’s a shame that this movie didn’t hit me the same way it hit others because I was really looking forward to it. Not only because of its historical subject matter (which is very important to keep touching upon) and but also all the Oscar buzz surrounding it. I know I’m in a minority at this point but I would be lying if I said I came away feeling impacted by this film. This is the opposite of the feeling I got coming from 2013’s “12 Years a Slave”. It’s a movie I own but is very tough to sit through. But that movie impacted on so many different levels. I wished that “Birth of a Nation” did something similar for me. It’s still worth going out to see but I think it misses its mark.