The Birth of a Nation, directed, written and starring, Nate Parker, is a film that struggles to concisely tell its story. Too often does the film give little glimpses of story elements, only for it to then move on and begin to focus on another. This lack of time means that a lot of the elements in the film feel underserved, and lacking in meaningful depth. So though the film has a powerful story at its core, there is a clear lack of time or development for any of it. But let’s get to the full review, and see just how, The Birth of a Nation shapes up.
The film tells the true story of, Nat Turner – played by Nate Parker – a slave who is owned by Samuel Turner – played by Armie Hammer. Nat Turner is different though, as his ability to read, has made it so he is well versed in the bible and thus preaches it to his fellow slaves. Such a skill sees him traveling around to other plantations and preaching to other slaves – it is hoped that he can inspire a harder work sense from them. What it instead results in, is Nat Turner to see the true horrors that are inflicted upon other slaves, and so he decides that the right thing to do is to orchestrate an uprising; one that will have the slave owners filled with fear.
It cannot be argued that this film doesn’t have powerful moments; there are quite a few times where the harrowing scenes you see, will cause an uncomfortable pit in your stomach. I also cannot dispute that the true story in which the film is based upon is not an important one – it is. Anytime a film is able to enlighten and inform me (or other people) on the story of someone who did something truly beyond what most humans may be capable of, is a film worth recognising.
But… the problem with, The Birth of a Nation is that it really does have a problem with its ability to slow down, and focus on the many points to its story that make up the bigger picture. I don’t ever feel I got to properly know the characters in the film, nor do I feel I got a clear sense of everything that made up the situation that they were in. Nat Turner is not ruled by a conventional master; he doesn’t perform all of the same tasks that the other slaves do. But the film seems unwilling to explore these unique circumstances. Instead we are given glimpses of how things are, and then are left to interpret the rest for ourselves.
That need for interpreting is something you’ll have to get used to when watching the film, as there is a lot of information and context that seems to have been omitted. Quite often would the film introduce something that seems really integral to the make-up of the story, only for it to then skip ahead in time and completely ignore the audiences need to settle in and ingratiate themselves with it.
Take the introduction of, Cherry – played by Aja Naomi King. She goes from a woman who has clearly been treated in the cruellest of ways – the lack of humanity within her when she first meets Nat Turner is disturbing. To a person that is wearing nice dresses and is being selected to work in the house as a maid. We see none of her struggle (apart from her initial scene) we do not see her go through this transformation. We only see the beginning and the end. That example is transferable to a lot of the scenes in this film. We see how it begins and we see how it ends, but rarely do we actually get to see the journey between those two points.
What this results in is a major problem. Not having all the necessary time and context makes it really difficult to fully invest yourself in the film. Yes, you have some natural human responses to seeing people being treated so horrifically. But when it actually comes to knowing and empathising with the films main cast of characters, things are not as easy. With the things that Nat Turner and his fellow slaves do, what you need is more than just inflammatory scenes that make the blood boil. They may make you sympathise with them, but you don’t have the full and necessary understanding of them as people. So when the finale to the film comes around, there was a sizeable disconnect for me; I was watching people rise up in defence of their freedoms, but I was not watching individuals who I felt I knew through and through.
The end result? Well, a film that didn’t have the effect that would be expected. I didn’t feel I learned anything from the film, nor do I feel I got to properly understand, Nat Turner as a person. So much of the film felt surface level in its approach. Which is a shame, because there really seemed to be something meaningful, just beyond that surface level. If only the film had taken the time to fully develop what it had, and not just touched upon them ever so slightly.
So I will not be recommending, The Birth of a Nation. I feel you could learn so much more by doing your own research on, Nat Turner (which you should absolutely do) as that way you’ll be far more informed. The film does make a good effort, but unfortunately fails to give the story of, Nat Turner the film he deserves.
What are your thoughts, The Birth of a Nation? Let me know in the comments down below. If you’re interested, following my blog directly, or following me over on Twitter – @GavinsTurtle, will keep you updated on when I post a new review. Thanks for reading this, and any other of my reviews! It really is appreciated.