Friday, October 14, 2016 9:00 am ·  0 Comments
In 1916, infamous director D. W. Griffith released The Birth of a Nation – a three hour war epic that was a love letter to slavery and the Klu Klux Klan. Exactly 100 years later, young film auteur Nate Parker has used the same title to share the opposite message – the evil in racial oppression. And for the most part, he succeeds.
This new Birth of a Nation is as artistic as it is bombastic. It gets so close to leaving a powerful emotional impact with the audience. This is one of those movies that feels like it was made solely to win as many Academy Awards as possible, and some may not be undeserving.
Don’t think the borrowed name between the films suggest any similarity in plot; they part company once the title cards appear. The 2016 version tells the true story of literate slave Nat Turner, who grows up on a Virginia plantation and learns to be a preacher. Once grown up, he leads one of the first slave-led rebellions against the owners, in a crusade that would lay the groundwork for the American Civil War.
The young Parker (who is a writer, director, producer, and star of the film) is clearly pulling out all the stops to impress Hollywood with what he’s capable of. Thankfully, most of what he does is well-crafted. His direction and production is both smart and careful. For the rest of it, it would be more enjoyable to watch if he wasn’t trying so hard to make it “good”.
There’s so much imagery and fantasy that Parker includes as part of the (largely dialogue free) narrative you might confuse the movie with a modern art exhibit at times. Some of it is striking, and great to watch. Some of the interpretive scenes, like the peculiar prologue, don’t add anything to the action.
Parker’s movie first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January this year, where it ended the run with a record-breaking $17.5 million distribution deal from Fox Searchlight studios. It also screened at TIFF last month to standing ovations.
Yet between the reviews, the massive deal, and this summer’s tabloid exposé of director Parker’s potential sexual abuse case in college, there’s been almost excessive coverage. The one question left was…would mainstream audiences like the movie or not?
Here’s my take: Parker’s history lesson is a mediocre version of 12 Years a Slave. It’s not original material, but it’s a fine movie in its own right. The hype and press surrounding the picture have oversold it, and it doesn’t live up to the lofty expectations it’s giving itself ahead of Award season.
I applaud Mr. Parker’s concept of a great American story being shared on film, and further so for re-claiming the title of a destructive movie into a bold remark of the black voice. It even goes as far as to aid in the healing from the damage done by the 1916 inspiration. His pride echoes through every frame, and I hope we can see more movies produced on this creed.
For the movie that is, don’t expect it to be a major contender at the Oscars in February. There’s nothing wrong with Parker’s debut here, and (however forgettable it is sometimes) he’s done a great job. But this isn’t the best he’s got. Right now, we’re watching the birth of an artist. So we’ll wait and see what he makes next.