Freshman Director Nate Parker creates a picture that is seemingly inspired by Best Picture winners such as Braveheart, Schindlers List and 12 Years of Slave, but produces a conventionally formulaic film lacking aesthetic cohesion, pacing, and subtlety.
The Birth of a Nation (2016) isn't a remake or reboot of D.W. Griffith's controversial and widely regarded groundbreaking masterpiece, but is instead Nate Parker's seemingly ambitious directorial debut-- a true story revenge tale about Nate Turner, an African American slave, referred to as "Prophet" by his followers, who led a Slave rebellion comprised of slaves and free blacks in Virginia in 1831, approximately 33 years before the Congressional passage of the 13th amendment and abolishment of slavery in all States. After a series of religious visions and certain atmospheric conditions, Nate Turner believed he was tasked by God to begin an uprising, his goal was to awaken the attitudes of whites to the reality of the inherent brutality in slave-holding and to spread terror and alarm amongst whites-- the rebellion did not discriminate by age or sex, until it was determined that the rebellion had achieved sufficient numbers.
Turner certainly accomplished that, but one could say in vain. The rebellion left around 60 dead white's- including many defenseless women and children-- and resulted in the state executing 56 blacks suspected of having been involved in the uprising. And unfortunately in the hysteria of aroused fears and anger in the days after the revolt, white militias and mobs killed an estimated 200 blacks, many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion.
The fear caused by Nat Turner's insurrection and the concerns raised in the emancipation debates that followed resulted in politicians and writers responding by defining slavery as a "positive good". Across Virginia and other southern states, state legislators passed new laws to control slaves and free blacks. They prohibited education of slaves and free blacks, restricted the rights of assembly for free blacks, withdrew their right to bear arms and voting, and required white ministers to be present at all black worship services. So one could definitely say the revolt was ultimately an utter failure.
The story about Nate Turner has been something of a passion project for Freshman director Nate Parker, who-- for all intents and purposes-- had full creative authority on this production as the writer, director, producer and lead actor. In what is the most violent slave revolt in U.S history it definitely is a story worth telling on screen, but one better told accurately; and as far as violence is concerned Parker delivers a solid account in its depiction. But Parker certainly cherry picks his character development aspects and plays down Nate Turner's religious zeal and tries to show the rebellion as a success and skips showing us the post revolt brutality instead strangely delegating that duty to the end credits.
The washed out aesthetic to the cinematography looks cheap, and is accompanied by a soaring score that oftentimes is overbearing. Despite the beautiful Georgia landscapes and a few great shots, Elliot Davis mostly delivers conventional cinematography, instead of showing the dramatic material in a visually arresting way, wasting great opportunities to be a character in and of itself.
The dialogue is a bit cheesy and unconvincing. This includes a routine sentimentalism that keeps the movie grounded in a series of conventional beats. Turner's stump speech feels especially heavy-handed.
The weakest aspect is the pacing. Unfortunately there's a conventionality to the somewhat mediocre and predictable storytelling that remains monotonous throughout. Parker plays it a bit too safe, and wastes many opportunities to build narrative momentum.
Aside from Nate Turner the characters just feel a bit thin and underdeveloped and to some extent unbelievable. Parker fails to sell us on Turner's visions. The best aspect of this film is Nate Parker's solid performance but the rest of the cast delivers unmemorable performances with most filling stock roles.
All in all the delivery of the film seems a bit too heavy handed to seriously be considered a great film. It's like The Patriot or The Alamo more than Braveheart or Schindler's list in that sense. Nate Parker takes a great story but fails to deliver a memorable picture by using conventional storytelling methods in a bid to drive home an agenda that'll launch a debate instead of delivering a masterpiece to be remembered for decades. This film could have really been something amazing had a better filmmaker (less afraid to take risks) taken the reigns.