The Birth Of A Nation Plot Summary:
Based on the true story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker), the slave who became a preacher, and led a rebellion that inspired a legacy.
Let’s get the preambles out of the way first. If there was an Academy Award for “Most Important Subject Matter,” then Birth of a Nation should be nominated, and probably win. There are one or two reviews a year where I have to throw out caveats and lay out ground rules. I’m judging this as a movie. I’m not judging this on “it’s really important, so the movie is automatically great” rules. Birth of a Nation isn’t bad, but all my concerns came true. Lifeless characters. Going through the motions plot. Shock image. Make you feel bad image. Shock image. Blah. Blah. Blah. Give me the Oscar.
The first half is borderline dreadful. It’s a completely lifeless film. Dopey acting. On the nose dialogue. Flat characters. There’s nothing here. It’s almost as if director Nate Parker is going through a checklist of slave movie tropes. We’ve seen these a hundred times. There’s nothing new here. Yeah, I felt bad. The slaves were treated horrifically. Here’s the problem – you need to write actual characters. Nat Turner doesn’t get interesting until far too late. Nothing grabs me about this guy. Why should I care? Yes, the circumstances are tragic, but that doesn’t automatically engross you to the movie. Give me something that’s interesting about this character. I want to feel something.
As far as the acting goes, Nate Parker is serviceable. He can carry a movie. There just isn’t much to carry. His most intriguing attribute is that he’s a preacher. His love for God. As he goes from farm to farm and watches his fellow slaves get treated brutally, it was compelling to see him struggle to do his job. The movie needed more of that. But in true 12 Years a Slave fashion, it’s more focused on shock imagery – not the character. When it’s time for Nat to lead the rebellion and give those stirring speeches, it’s fine, but the writing is about as electrifying as a dead battery.
While underwritten, Turner is still the best part of the film. There is absolutely no other noteworthy supporting character whatsoever. Armie Hammer gives a solid performance as Turner’s master, but that’s it. Turner’s wife? Generic. Turner’s mom? Forgettable. Turner’s friend? Cliché. I don’t know how much I can repeat the same problem. It’s visuals over character. That’s not how a good movie works. You need characters. Let’s look at a movie like Black Swan. It’s extraordinarily visual. The difference is Darren Aronofsky creates layered characters to go along with it. That’s what endears you to their story. Not this.
Let’s get to those shocking images. There’s a whipping scene, hangings and plenty of other terrible sights to make you squirm. Even though 12 Years a Slave was uneven, it at least delivered power behind those uncomfortable moments. This just pushes them through. It’s as if Nate Parker already knows he’s going to tug at the heart strings, so there isn’t much effort or build up to these moments. Even the actual rebellion seemed rushed and glossed over. There’s a hanging scene where Parker is trying so hard to make you explode with tears, that the moment actually lost all meaning for me. It’s completely over the top. For crying out loud, try some subtlety. Please. Imagine if you were arguing with a friend, but instead of talking to him with well thought out points, you shook him while shouting in his face. That’s Birth of a Nation.
I wanted nothing more than to be wowed by this movie, but that’s just not the case. I want to reiterate that this isn’t a bad film. It certainly has its moments. The last 90 seconds is very well directed. I’ll give Nate Parker that. If you go and see this movie, all I ask is this – don’t predetermine that you’re going to love it. Please watch it honestly, and don’t be afraid to dislike it. We’ve reached a point where directors need to do something different with this topic on film. Even a movie like Django Unchained, which is outlandish, manages to make a different kind of slave movie, but it still has an emotional resonance. Despite all the crazy hoopla, it’s about the characters. I need a break from the “beat you over the head” slave movies.
I’m sure this won’t be the last time I talk about how overrated Birth of a Nation is. Oscars, here we come.
Rating: 5.5 out of 10 (Passable Entertainment)
Daniel Cohen is the Film Editor for Pop-Break. Aside from reviews, Daniel does a weekly box office predictions column, and also contributes monthly Top Tens and Op-Ed’s on all things film. Daniel is a graduate of Bates College with a degree in English, and also studied Screenwriting at UCLA. He can also be read on www.movieshenanigans.com. His movie crush is Jessica Rabbit. Follow him on Twitter @dcohenwriter.