Saturday, October 8, 2016
Can the beautifully complex The Birth of a Nation survive against an impossible wave of scandal?
Review by Matt CummingsIf the current political and social climate of our country has you wanting for something more pure and true, The Birth of a Nation comes at just the right time, for what should be Director/Writer Nate Parker's finest hour. The question is whether his untenable personal scandal will wreck this incredible film's chances for Oscar success and cinematic immortality. Life in the deep South of the early 1800's is one of blacks in bondage and cruel masters intent on seeing their property remain so. Even with these roles so clearly defined, the educated Virginia slave Nat Turner (Parker) enjoys a markedly better life. His owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) sees great things in Nat, allowing him to run a small church on the plantation and even defends him against more abusive owners like Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earl Haley). But Samuel is also keenly aware that his family's name and reputation are in jeopardy, and soon begins to treat Nat with less regard even though he's been allowed to preach at other plantations to worn and weary slaves. After an especially brutal beating by Samuel, Nat decides to rebel against his master, killing him and several other owners in the hope of staging a much larger conflict that would see the end of "The Peculiar Institution." As Turner executes his plan, all of Virginia rallies against him and his tattered rebels, leading to a final conflict that will see him either be hanged or gain his hard-fought freedom. The Birth of a Nation is one part historical epic, one part horror film, and one part action flick. Parker commands each like a field general, never losing our attention as Turner's Rebellion heads towards its violent and bloody conclusion. He never shies away from the disgusting nature of slavery and the even worse violence owners regularly practiced on their 'property.' Parker even shows us women slaughtered in their beds, hanging from nooses, and beat up so badly one could hardly recognize them. It's all part and parcel of the experience, but it feels a lot more important than just a check-box director who throws it in there hoping for Oscar sympathies. The Birth of a Nation has something to say, struggling within itself to identify the human condition in a time when our country's grand experiment was a mere 60 years old. The answers aren't pretty, and might even be too much for some to handle, but that inner turmoil portrays a deeply ugly South where even the stately mansions are soiled with the stain of slavery. Everyone is affected by it - especially the owners themselves - as their lack of humanity enforced by the law allowed them to control human beings in a way that drives Turner to start the rebellion in the first place. That contrast and the struggles which Turner and the cast go through to both show the inhumanity and to attempt to answer these questions makes for a compelling story. If there's two things that bothered me about The Birth of a Nation, it's the performances of both the younger Nat and another boy - neither is particularly well-realized, and in some cases really hamper Parker's otherwise perfect production. Otherwise, casting is excellent without knocking you over the head over the atrocities Southerners committed. I'm not kidding when I say that The Birth of a Nation handles this with incredible dexterity, even when relating one disturbing image after another. There's a scene where an owner - prior to his deserved execution - is actually sleeping with a young female slave, a topic that Parker doesn't shy away from, including the mass hangings of blacks after Turner's own execution is carried out. There's also some interesting side history that gets left out here, including the effort Turner and his army made to flee to the Florida Territory, which at this point is owned by abolitionist France. Had Turner been able to get there, he might have enjoyed a wider conflict; that race to the border is as interesting as the Rebellion itself, and I wish a moment had been taken to highlight it. But it's unclear whether audiences will even care about the film, as outage continues to rage against Parker, who this week refused to take advice from none other than Oprah herself for rescuing his tattered image. As we well know, The Oscars are as political as they are decoration, and Parker's rough week won't help his chances come February if he doesn't right the ship and soon. Beautifully complex and expertly shot, The Birth of a Nation is a must-see for both adults and mid-teens ready for some harsh history lessons. It does suffer from an annoying amount of youngster acting, but that shouldn't keep you from witnessing what should have been a front-runner Oscar candidate. Parker's legal and personal troubles threaten to upend one of the most important films of this decade, a fact which only time can help erase. For now, see it as part of your Oscar To-Do List, and decide for yourself if its brilliance will allow you to also forgive it. The Birth of a Nation is rated R for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity and has a runtime of 120 minutes. Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.