MovieBob Reviews Birth of a Nation

first_imgFairly or not, the hardest movies to review are often the ones where the story is bigger than the individual film itself, and not only did Birth of A Nation turn into exactly that, it’s pretty much been there since it first showed up.You may recall that last year there was a public outcry taking the Academy Awards to task for basically not nominating hardly any Black people? (#OscarSoWhite?) Well, the Sundance Film Festival was happening at the same time, so naturally everyone’s antennae were up for any Black films that felt like potential Oscar nominees; both to help make the point and because, let’s face it, there was now likely to be a premium on exactly that sort of thing.The movie everybody seemed to hit upon? Birth of Nation.It’s not exactly hard to see why: A biography of Slave Rebellion leader Nat Turner written, directed by, produced by, and starring Nate Parker as a passion project explicitly undertaken out of frustration at the lack of available good roles for Black actors so committed to the cause that it borrowed the title of the infamous pro-KKK silent epic to drive the point home. One understands, just from that brief production data, how it felt like the answer to a lot of prayers and wound up winning the festival’s Grand Jury and Audience Awards prize.…and then it came out that Parker had a rape charge back in college that got adjudicated under some extremely shady circumstances (not helping matters: an alleged cohort in the act has a story credit on the film) and… well, “shit,” would be putting it mildly. Suffice it to say the meta-narrative has gotten significantly more complicated now; since all along the “idea” of the film had been tied to the “idea” of the filmmaker who’d cast himself as the hero in multiple senses of the word.But, apart from all that, how is the actual film? Well… it’s okay. It’s fine.That’s probably the only thing harder than appraising a movie that’s been made into something bigger than itself (first a would-be vanguard of awards season representation, now a referendum on a decidedly less-than-contrite Nate Parker): having the actual film turn out to not inspire passions – positive or negative – equivalent to its presence. Oh, well.Taken entirely on its own merits, Birth of A Nation is a decently entertaining, occasionally-inspired work of historical melodramatic mythmaking. Perhaps amusingly, the filmmaking (and the filmmaker) that it most brings to mind is Mel Gibson; in as much as it’s a stylish, ultra-violent, not terribly “nuanced” work of history-as-larger-than-life-mythmaking positively dripping with heavy-handed Christian religiousity. Wherein moral authority is conferred by ham-fisted Biblical reference and a bounty of iconographic hero-shots depicting the writer/director/star posing like a cross between Jesus Christ and a mid-power-up Super Saiyan.Let’s be clear, though: If you’re shooting for “12 Years A Slave” meets “Braveheart” (“Slaveheart?”) a biopic of Nat Turner culminating in the violent rise and brutal crushing of his famous 1831 slave rebellion is probably the best possible place to start – even if the end result winds up more along the lines of The Patriot in terms of execution: This is a glossy, lurid, hyper-real work of folk-history mythologizing what in its best moments feels like a monument in motion and in it’s… well, “less than best” moments feels like the “Catcher Freeman” spoofs from The Boondocks.But there’s nothing wrong with that approach. The almost “pulpy” campfire-tales version of history is every bit as vital a component of how a society processes its own remembered self-image as the purely-factual academic record is. It could be easily argued that since “the record” tried for a long time to diminish or even erase events in Black History like this that likely only survived by being passed down as cultural folklore in the first place. Telling Nat Turner’s story in this way is in itself a wholly appropriate carrying on of tradition. Besides, why shouldn’t this particular figure get the same kind of pop-lionization that’s already afforded to Paul Revere, Davy Crockett, or Wyatt Earp?And when Birth of A Nation is surfing that wave – that’s when it works. The first two acts worth of playing out the inhuman indignities of slavery are horrific and nasty and luridly compelling in that “masochism-as-righteousness” vein that pairs so disturbingly well with all the super on-the-nose Biblical stuff. This is where Turner is a “prophecised savior” having visions of his spiritual inner-self battling sinister figures and being gazed upon beatifically by literal fucking angels (the Sundance cut reportedly featured spectral visions of Turner’s ancestors that some compared to Star Wars‘ Force Ghosts, seemingly excised from the theatrical release) and as buildup it makes all the brutal payback and revenge business in Act 3 play out as legitimately rousing, crowd-pleasing stuff – right up to a final shot that’s like something out of a Robert Rodriguez movie (one of the good ones, obviously.)Unfortunately, there’s a lot more would-be “respectable” movie wedged in between all this, which is a lot less compelling. Not “bad” necessarily, but certainly weightless and uninteresting. It’s all very well-intentioned and sincere, but the problem with half the movie being basically “Black 300” and the trying to do the other half as serious, contemplative drama is that the kind of one-dimensional human avatars that fit so well into heightened action-heavy folk-history lack the depth of character to be compelling at a regular human level; especially including the main character we spend about 99% of the movie with.Whatever else may be true about Nate Parker, it’s obvious he worked his ass off on this movie and he’s going for broke onscreen… but whether as a result of his own screenplay or his own acting chops, he ends up feeling like a limited instrument as a leading man. He’s very good whenever Turner is delivering soaring speeches, suffering nobly through torturous punishments, belting out sermons and meting out vigilante justice (actors either look “right” in a swordfighting stance or they don’t); but whenever the film slows down and tries to be “real” the character is as flatly and shallowly presented as all the rest.Still, as a cultural artifact, Birth of a Nation nonetheless feels important and necessary. The parts that work really work, and for the kind of movie that ultimately exists mainly to be fired up on Blu-ray in high school history classrooms once or twice every February, it get’s the job done… but it’s a frustratingly incomplete half-measure overall, however understandable the sense that it might’ve been something more must have felt back in Park City. That final shot, though… damn, that really is something.**1/2 (out of 4)last_img

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