By Adam Ray Palmer
Today’s review is of Nate Parker’s re-working of DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation that screened at the Phoenix cinema Leicester.
Joining Parker on the casting credits is Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Aja Naomi King and Colman Domingo. Nate also adapts the script and directs.
I’ve seen a fair share of criticism for this film, but I needed to see first-hand why after the brilliant teaser trailers…
The Birth of a Nation follows Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a literate slave and preacher, whose financially strained owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), accepts an offer to use Nat's preaching to subdue unruly slaves. Nat observes horrific atrocities to fellow slaves, including his himself and family, and so he coordinates an uprising to fight for freedom.
The premise alone is enough for audiences to judge how hard-hitting some of Birth’s scenes will be – and they will not be wrong. Birth is a powerful piece of cinema but for large amounts of the runtime; for the wrong reasons. You expect to see a tragic and thought-provoking piece of art but Parker falls down too many trap holes with gratuitous violence. It seems to me he is stuck for ideas of how to tell parts of the story, or it has been aggressively edited.
The film is at its most powerful when it's relying primarily on Parker's charisma and presence. Nate is top drawer in the acting department as the emotionally-tortured Nat. It’s the close-ups shots and the point-of-view pieces from the first-time director that pluck on the heart strings.
Unfortunately, Parker’s impressive central performance is undone by overplayed symbolism and side-plots that are not developed. We are introduced to a lot of different people but only given minimal information to build an opinion on them. This seems Nate’s plan though as history suggests The Academy like sincere and bite-sized outrage which Birth aligns too, but it isn’t finessed.
However, one method Birth takes to make the film innovative is the way Turner experiences the atrocities, as a growing awareness of his own helplessness. The main problem though that the movie doesn’t acknowledge, is that any man would find it difficult not to revolt in the way Nat does.
The Birth of a Nation captures the right bits like the significant events in his life and how they come to connect into a path of Nat’s eventual uprising; but Birth spends too much time on shocking the audience through what Nat sees rather than on understanding who Turner is.
In fairness, at times, Nation is teeth-gratingly raw, with an astonishingly good lead performance. But at other times, it wallows in common clichés. It's an encouraged crowd-pleaser rather than a thoughtful piece. It tries to be 2016’s 12 Years a Slave with a hint of Django Unchained but instead falls short of packing that psychological punch long after the credits roll. If only this film explored its subject as well as it explores the sorrow, then we would have an Oscar-contender.
Cineroom’s Rating: 3 Stars
The Birth of a Nation screened at the Phoenix Leicester over New Year – certificate 18