It’s amazing how much a difference 12 months can make. When the festival hype train was building in 2015 for The Birth of a Nation in anticipation of a 2016 release there was only one way to describe it: the frontrunner to win all of the awards. It had the right pedigree and the political climate at the time dictated, especially in light of the “Oscars so White” controversy, that Nate Parker’s opus could wind up being the sort of film that righted the scales for a year.
And as a film it’s easily one of the best of 2016 by far. Parker crafted an immaculate film about Nat Turner’s failed slave revolt that didn’t pander to the worst instincts of the genre, like a wannabe Tarantino. Instead Parker’s film is about a deeply religious man seeing the injustices of the world around him, and the chains he was born into, decides to rebel against them. It’s a near perfect film who’s only flaw is that of its director and star, which wound up tanking the film at the box office and with critics.
But it’s not Parker’s performance or directing chops that wound up sucking all the air out of buzz for this film. It was Parker’s past, where he was accused (and ultimately found not guilty of) sexual assault, that wound up tanking the film at the box office and with critics. The discussion around the film’s release wasn’t about the film itself; it was about how the former NCAA wrestling star wound up being accused of rape. It hung over the film like a cloud unlike Casey Affleck and Manchester by the Sea. Affleck had similar accusations surrounding him following his failed documentary about Joaquim Phoenix trying to become a rapper, I’m Still Here, which he wound up settling out of court. Affleck is in the driver’s seat for Best Actor and it hasn’t been an issue at all in its pre-Oscar campaign.
It pays to have Batman as your older brother, it seems.
That’s a shame because the film is a genuinely extraordinary piece of work. Parker takes the tale of Nat Turner, who led a failed slave revolt before the Civil War, and makes him not a hero but a decent man who’s had his fill of the indecent. Parker, who wore every creative hat possible in the film as he wrote/directed/produced and starred in the film, delivers a screen dominating performance as Turner. Nat is a literate slave and deeply religious, functioning as the preacher to the slaves of his owner (Armie Hammer). Witnessing atrocities, Nat believes God has inspired him to lead a revolt as an instrument of freedom.
The revolt goes badly, as the handful of wealthy slaver owners killed paled in comparison to the number of slaves Nat led to their deaths. Turner himself would find himself hung, and slaves in the Antebellum South in even worse conditions afterward, but the film follows the path Turner walked that led him to that moment of rebellion. The rebellion itself is only a small portion of the film; the build to it is exquisite as Parker takes his time and lets it marinate.
It is what keeps the film from being an exploitation piece and into a deeply dramatic one. This is about a man trying to find peace in a world that will lead him to war. We feel Turner’s struggle as he sees the evil of the world around him, of bad men pretending to be good, and how it drives him to a path of violence that he hopes winds up being much greater than it would up becoming. This is a man who felt he had nothing to lose but his chains trying to do something extraordinary, and failing in the process.
It’s a magnificent performance by Parker, who captures the inner turmoil of this man of God perfectly. In a year that wasn’t as crazy as 2016 was The Birth of a Nation would be the freight train about to roll over the Oscars. Instead it’s noteworthy for being a massive Sundance splurge that would up being mothballed into the history books prematurely.
There are some very interesting historical pieces on Nat Turner and a plethora of EPK pieces as well.
20th Century Fox presents The Birth of a Nation. Written and directed by Nate Parker. Starring Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Gabrielle Union, Mark Boone Junior, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley. Run Time: 120 minutes. Rated R. Released on: