The Birth of a Nation Screen 51 of 20 reviews

The Birth of a Nation

2016

The Birth of a Nation Poster
  • As Nat Turner, Parker created a new narrative in Hollywood, a hero’s journey for a man who led a killing spree of white slave owners. The film soars in the latter half as the preacher-turned-rebel questions his uprising and choices. But as the camera backs away from Turner and onto the faces of black onlookers on the edges of an angry white mob, we know the movie is not just about one man. It’s the story of our nation.

  • Perhaps the most impressive thing about The Birth of a Nation is how it alternates between the aestheticized and the immediate without compromising either. Scenes of abject horror are intercut with more dreamlike, symbolic passages, creating a push-pull to the narrative. It's a beautiful, reflective film even as it is also a brutal, visceral one.

  • Parker can be narcissistic in typical actor director fashion (the setup to the actual revolt makes it feels very much all about his wounded ego) and the film conforms to a lot of usual Hollywood rebel tropes, yet this is not just genuine angry, but packed with images of slavery as a form of damnation that can be rather strong and it has an understand of Christian ideology and how turn the other cheek and violent retribution are flip sides of each other.

  • It's a movie with distinct and distinctive virtues, thematic and aesthetic, which emerge from Parker’s impassioned and extended reflection on Nat Turner’s life and on the monstrous institution of slavery in the United States. It also is a seriously damaged and inadequate movie, and its defects reveal traits of character—arrogance, vanity, and self-importance—that exert an unfortunately strong influence on Parker’s directorial choices.

  • Any number of good, even great movies can feel leached of impact on a second or third encounter, and “The Birth of a Nation” seemed to have more or less exhausted its secrets the first time around... To watch the film now is to be reminded of the need for activism and justice, but also the folly of choosing retribution over mercy. If you see “The Birth of a Nation” (and I recommend that you do), look closely at the man who occupies almost every frame...

  • Anyone who believes he or she will find true gratification in refusing to buy a ticket to The Birth of a Nation should probably stay away. But this sort of punishment by refusal can’t rewrite the past, and it suggests that closing ourselves off from a movie is a bold way to engage with the world, when in fact, it’s the opposite. The Birth of a Nation isn’t a great movie—it’s hardly even a good one. But it’s bluntly effective, less a monumental piece of filmmaking than an open door.

  • +

    Film Comment: Amy Taubin
    March 03, 2016 | Sundance | March/April 2016 Issue (p. 62)

    The big story out of Sundance 2016, but not one that necessarily will have legs... The Birth of a Nation is a mess of a film, but it has ambition (witness its title) and a sense of urgency—qualities that were notably lacking in many films by established independent filmmakers on this year's Sundance slate.

  • Produced outside the system (by an actor infuriated by the dearth of substantial black roles, no less) and now grandfathered into it, the narrative surrounding "Birth of a Nation" holds more power than the actual film. But this weight is also embedded in Turner's treatment of the material.

  • It’s easy to imagine a large, packed auditorium having the wind smacked out of them by a film that ends on the close-up of a tear. Yet, in the harsh light of day, its righteous fury seems dulled, and its true nature can be seen with more clarity: a Hollywood entertainment whose level of sophistication is summed up by its constant recourse to early Peter Jackson-level gore effects.

  • It’s a “counter-myth”—to use the phrase Oliver Stone employed when defending “JFK” —designed to supplant Griffith’s. That's fine; it's part of a tradition as old as cinema—older, really. But Parker pursues this strategy in such a simplistic way that you're left with yet another movie about a speechifying avenger anointed by the cosmos. It's a tale told with conviction but also tedious single-mindedness, as well as a self-regarding quality that makes the noble tone seem untrustworthy.

  • In the end, The Birth of a Nation sands down Turner's understanding of justice until it fits into our own, modern hermeneutic, and so neglects the lasting consequence of the change he wrought. Even the film's most awful, forthright act of invention, a montage of the uprising's aftermath that culminates in black bodies hanging from weeping willows, appears to admit the difficulty, the impossibility, of capturing the country's original sin.

  • By turns affecting and frustrating, “The Birth of a Nation” has a scale and ambition too rarely seen in most directorial debuts at Sundance. It has moments of power, but also longueurs and some unfortunate visual choices. And as the story unfolds, it becomes difficult to parse its political and theological arguments.

  • One reason that the film never gels as well as the Sundance audience psyched itself into believing it did is Parker's one-dimensional conception of his central figure, Nat Turner. Parker's Turner is the most prosaic of prophets, a man seized by visions but never gripped by madness—a rational messiah who plans a slave rebellion with all the visionary abandon of a corporate executive deciding where to site a suburban department store.

  • There’s no evidence that, in trying to think about what confronting the past might do for us, Parker ever looked beyond the obvious both in terms of the story he told and the narrative techniques he employed to tell us.

  • It's all gushing wounds, bloody stitches, knife thrusts, decapitations and strategically placed hanging bodies. Such images may be striking but they are also gratuitous, portraying the pre-Civil War American South as tour of depravity that never ends. There's nothing inherently honorable or complex about presenting these visuals simply to punish the viewer. Where's the substance, or the layers of human conflict? The Birth of a Nation only has time for loud symbolism posing as social justice.

  • At the end of “The Birth of a Nation,” as Turner is hanged and the crowd howls its approval, the camera draws close to the face, and then the quivering, liquid eyes, of a black boy who heard one of Turner’s sermons, and later betrayed him. When the camera pans out again, the boy is a Union soldier, leading a charge for freedom. The implication of a baton having been passed is ahistorical, and very silly.

  • By tying the rebel's rage to a direct action instead of the ideology that prompted it, the film bizarrely sanitizes the man. The real Turner was willing to kill men, women, and children to purge the world of a hate he identified as sin, but his cinematic avatar is softened, turned into a wronged man whose motive can appeal to the broadest possible audience.

  • At the risk of praising with faint damnation, it's roughly on a par with Braveheart as far as gory populist epics go. This genre has defeated the filmmakers who have tried to bridle against it; by contrast, Parker strives shamelessly to inhabit a banal format head-on... It’s very strange to watch painful verities staged in a way that diminishes their power under the guise of amplifying it. This is a film about deep-seated systems of oppression that feels tonally like a superhero origin myth.

  • Sundance smash The Birth of a Nation, like any movie, deserves to be considered for its craft rather than its buzz or controversy. So, then: Parker’s dramatization of the 1831 rebellion of Virginia slave Nat Turner is impressively mounted, unimaginatively directed, and dubiously conceived—provocative in title only... Apparently made in tribute to bad 1990s epics, The Birth of a Nation boasts Braveheart battles and a Legends of the Fall score and doesn’t offer a single original visual idea.

  • ××

    Sight & Sound: Nick Pinkerton
    December 02, 2016 | January 2017 Issue (p. 73)

    Parker and Celestin's imagination of Turner's life and death has the conscientious diligence of an in-class presentation, and not a single unexpected thing occurs in the course of its rhythmless two-hour running time. I am not certain I have ever seen another movie that so completely conformed to my expectation of what it would be in every single detail, with not a single spontaneous or human digression interrupting its lockstep trudge towards Turner's apotheosis on the hangman's scaffold.

More Links