One of 2016's Most underrated Films
I'm late to the party, so at this point and I can already say that The Birth of a Nation is a bust. It has had a dismal showing at the box office due to several controversies surrounding the film. Now, some of these controversies are warranted, particularly surrounding director/writer/producer/lead Nate Parker, but much of it is not, because when you shut out the noise and just look at this film on its own.....you have a really good film. And since the Academy has a sketchy past themselves when it comes to holding directors accountable for their past actions, (they did give Best Director in 2003 to Roman Polanski even though he can't step foot in the US without being arrested for charges very similar to Nate Parker's) I find their lack of interest in this film to be..... somewhat shallow. Oh well. Hopefully Moonlight saves us from a 3rd year of #OscarsSoWhite, because to this point the Academy has done everything it can to ignore this film.
But enough about controversy, how is the actual film? The Birth of a Nation is heavy-handed and overbearing, but I actually found it's display of slavery to be more powerful than Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave. I think the primary reason for this is that (for the most part) the whites in this film are not all simply terrible for being terrible. You see a character like Armie Hammer try and justify his treatment of his slaves, and you witness his decent into oblivion (and his ultimate demise) as he sells pieces of his soul demeaning his slaves to stay afloat. It also makes the scenes at awful plantations that much more powerful. There's a force feeding scene in this film that was extremely hard to watch, and must have been equally difficult to film, but it is a POWERFUL scene. While there is an unfortunately shallow character (that also doesn't age for 25 years) in Jackie Earle Haley's slave catcher, who exists solely to die at the end at the hands of our hero during the uprising, other than that I really thought this film did an extremely good job showing us slavery in the south.
Now of course the main highlight of this film is Nat Turner's (played by Parker) evolution into the leader of this famous uprising. The crew did a good job here, but it's certainly far from perfect. Once Samuel Turner (played by Hammer) starts taking Nat around to various plantations to preach the gospel, you can see Nat's constant internal battle with what Bible verses he should be preaching to the crowd. Should he preach civility and obediance? Or revolution and violence? I was very moved as his sermons became more emotional (and extreme) as the film progressed, but by the end as Nat is trying to justify the uprising I struggled to identify with him. I think this was one of the other missteps of the film. Right up to the beginning of the uprising, Parker portrays Nat Turner as completely virtuous, even as he begins contemplating murdering his master and many other whites. That said, I still found myself moved as the uprising took place, and even though the final confrontation was a little cliché, I still admittingly had some goosebumps.
The final thing I have to mention, (and I think a major reason I had goosebumps in the final confrontation) was the score. This film brought us back to the old days of cinema, as it heavily featured an emotionally moving score from Henry Jackman. This composer has actually been one of the better composers of recent years, but his problem is that the films he's composed for are part of the new era of cinema that feels that the score of a film is nothing more than background music. Have no idea what I'm talking about? Check this out. Well, Nate Parker was smart enough to feature Jackman's resounding and emotional score, and it has led to what is easily my favorite film score this year to this point.
At the end of the day, I think The Birth of a Nation is a worthwhile film to see. It tells a story of one of the most overlooked events of pre-Civil War slavery, and it tells it well. Yes there are problems, but this is still a good (almost great) film and one that is definitely worth showing in American History classrooms. Check it out.
The Critique: While not perfect and heavy-handed, The Birth of a Nation features a well-told narrative surrounding one of American Slavery's most overlooked events.
The Recommendation: I think anyone with an interest in American History should put this one on their list of films to see, and I really wish more people (overall) would go see it. (Author's note: I wonder how this film will affect the state of indie films. This film was given the biggest distribution contract ever for a Sundance film from Fox Searchlight pictures back in January, and it has struggled to even make this contract back. I hope it doesn't deter future indie films from receiving the contracts from distributors that they deserve.)
Rewatchability: Moderately High
The Verdict: 7.5/10 Almost Great