Film Review: "The Birth of a Nation"

UPDATE: 10/11/16 update from the year 1961 to the year 1861 in the opening paragraph.

Nate Parker makes his directorial debut, writes, and stars in “The Birth of a Nation”, a film depicting the 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia led by Nat Turner.

Along with Nate Parker as Nat Turner, the film also stars Armie Hammer (“The Lone Ranger”), Aja Naomi King, and Jackie Earle Haley (“Watchmen”).

Nat Turner leads a revolt against slave owners in "The Birth of a Nation." (Photo courtesy of "The Birth of a Nation" Facebook page.)

Nat Turner leads a revolt against slave owners in "The Birth of a Nation." (Photo courtesy of "The Birth of a Nation" Facebook page.)

After witnessing atrocities beyond even what he’s accustomed to, Nat Turner, a slave turned preacher, decides to lead a rebellion of slaves against their own oppressors.

A wave of controversy has surrounded this film, in reference to a rape trial against Nate Parker that has been brought back into the light. While this will be a determining factor in whether or not people will go out and see this film, this is not a review of Parker’s actions. It is a review of his film, “The Birth of a Nation.” Again, while these circumstances will, without a doubt, effect audience’s perspective of the film, and understandably so, the film is what it is.

“Birth” is a good movie. Not a great movie, but impressive work from a first time director. Parker is blunt in his direction of the film. Not only does the film conjure plenty of tears, but plenty of cringes as well. Parker takes no hesitation in visually depicting this difficult time in American history. It’s well structured with a flowing pace. The direction does fall into the trappings of many clichés and obvious symbolism, but the good in Parker’s direction far outweighs the average.

The film is also gorgeous. Elliot Davis does the cinematography and shows his strength in the coloring of the film. He desaturates the picture quality to the point in which it’s dominated by greys and blues. It’s almost black-and-white in its visual style. With this, certain items will be accentuated by bold colors, such as red or orange. While not exactly like “Sin City,” it’s similar in that vain. Not only does this create beautiful images, but also a mood that envelopes the theater.

Despite the film’s strengths, the major negative aspect throughout the film is its characters. The issue is that these characters are very narrow, very black-and-white, for lack of a better term. The good guys are very much the good guys and the bad guys are very much the bad guys. While slavery is an inexcusable stain on America’s history, it's important to remember that this was an atrocity committed against humans by humans. Humans are not all good or all bad.

This narrowness keeps the audience from becoming too invested in these characters, most notably in Jackie Earle Haley’s Raymond Cobb and, unfortunately, Parker’s Nat Turner.

Haley plays Cobb almost like a comic book villain. His sole purpose is to show up and cause trouble. All he needs is a thin mustache to twirl. This is in part due to the writing, but there’s no meat to this character. All the audience sees him do is attack slaves. This softens the effect of the character, keeping the film from being being as effective and blunt as Parker intended.

Parker’s portrayal of Nat is not nearly as stale as Haley’s, but again, there isn’t a lot of meat to his character. It’s difficult to describe Nat beyond just “a guy with a cause.” This keeps the film from being, again, as effective as it could. The audience can’t bond with Turner because they can’t relate to him as a human being. The events and the visuals around Turner do help to add divisiveness to the rebellion, as this has proven to be a divisive historical event, but Nat isn’t portrayed as much more than just, “a good guy.”

However, the one ambiguous character comes in the form of Armie Hammer as Samuel Turner. He becomes another strength of film. He is a well-rounded and interesting character. Samuel is Nat’s master. He’s a kinder slave owner compared to others. Granted, still a slave owner. However, he’s also pressured with keeping the plantation passed down to him afloat. This leads him to make some horrific decisions, but what makes these decisions so horrific is that the audience understands this character. Hammer plays this well. He doesn’t give a tour de force performance, but he does a decent job at playing the film’s most complex character.

Amidst both award season buzz and and controversial accusations, Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” has received its fair share of media publicity. While the film doesn’t live up to its hype, Parker makes up for the films’ bland characters with one solid character, a beautiful color pallette, and an unflinching depiction of American history in his directorial debut.