18 December 2016

The Birth of a Nation review

If any film should be able to elicit a strong emotional reaction from an audience, it's a film about the slave trade, one of the largest injustices in human history and one that happened a depressingly short time ago. Our default reaction to seeing this era realised on-screen is quite rightly one of disgust, horror and shame, and there have been a number of movies in recent years that have effectively harnassed those emotions in order to deliver truly powerful, moving films. Unfortunately, The Birth of a Nation is neither of those things, completely failing to engage its audience on emotional level despite it's inflammatory nature - and that's very telling about how much of The Birth of a Nation does (or more accurately, doesn't) work.

Deliberately using the same title as the 1915 Ku Klux Klan propaganda film, The Birth of a Nation tells the real life story of slave Nat Turner, who in 1831 led a violent rebellion against the slave owners of Southampton County, Virginia. We follow the deeply religious Nat as he is taken from plantation to plantation in order to preach to word of God to slaves at risk of revolting - but in seeing the horrors other slaves face on a daily basis, instead begins working to inspire that revolution.

The story being told here is an interesting one, centred around the place that faith has in both supporting and opposing systems of oppression, but unfortunately The Birth of a Nation simply isn't particularly good at telling it. Even at just 2 hours long, The Birth of a Nation does little to justify its running time - the story doesn't start in earnest until maybe a full hour in, anything before which can effectively be written off as wasted time. However, even after that opening hour the film drags its feet somewhat until we start to reach the finale, at which point we're rushed through what should have been the most evocative, provocative part of the film in a way that robs it of any impact it could and should have had.

And the main reason for this is clear - The Birth of a Nation is an ego project from someone whose skills aren't yet up to the task. It's not that director/producer/writer/lead actor Nate Parker is bad at what he's doing here, it's simply that he isn't particularly good either - he's an adequate director and an OK writer, and his performance (although stronger than his direction and writing) isn't enough to make up for the vital areas in which he is lacking. Characters are underwritten, scenes lack purpose, moments that need time to breathe are cut away from all too quickly while shots that have long outstayed their welcome are allowed to linger - there is an apparent lack of instinct for what is and isn't working throughout, and the result is a movie that feels surprisingly amateur in spite of high production values, some good performances and a fairly consistent level of visual polish.

Which means that ultimately, The Birth of a Nation ends up being little more than an underwhelming debut from Parker, a figure steeped in such controversy that it feels a shame that the film itself isn't more worthy of discussion and dissection. Given time to hone his skills (which seems unlikely, all things considered), Parker's seeming interest in faith and suffering may have turned him into a fascinating film-maker in the same vein as Mel Gibson, but that doesn't change what The Birth of a Nation is - a severely flawed film that merely carries itself with a sense of importance and relevance that it never really earns.

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