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Birth of a Nation Full Review
The Birth of a Nation is a period piece set in Southhampton County, Virgina in 1831. It is based on a true story of a group of slaves who rebelled and raided several plantation in just two days. The film was generating a lot of award buzz, and so naturally I had to see it for myself. Nate Parker, actor, and musical performer, makes his directorial debut, and it clearly shows this is his first time around. The film at times has the shortcomings of a rookie director, but he definitely shows flashes of great talent, and I hope this isn't his last film.
The story he has chosen is indeed an interesting one. Renegade slaves revolting against their masters which at times had the same feel as Braveheart. A band of rebels launching an attack against their oppressors as they yearn to be free.
The story follows a young boy named, Nat. it was prophesied he would become a great leader from a young age by an African tribe practicing their traditions in secret after being brought over to South. Nat teaches himself how to read after he steals a book, and when the wife of the Plantation owner discovers that he could read, instead of scolding him, she see's it as a miracle that a black boy could sound out words, and she takes it upon herself to teach him how to read the bible. Flash forward a few years, and Nat is now a grown young man. He has become a preacher to the slaves, and his childhood friend, the white son of the Plantation owner, Samuel Turner has now taken over and become his master played by, Armie Hammer. Even though there is respect for Nat, Samuel has learned to separate himself from him over the years, slowing building a distance which only gets bigger later on. When a severe drought hits Southhampton County, many Plantation owners find it increasingly hard to make money. A white preacher tells Samuel that he has spoken to other owners about Nat, and they have agreed to pay Samuel if he brings Nat over to preach the word to their slaves. Of course the passages selected are those from certain scriptures that talk about servants submitting to their masters no matter if they are kind or harsh. It is in the tour of several Plantations that Nat see's the true horrors of slavery. Even though he has hardly had an ideal life as a slave, he was raised in a relatively easy environment, and was treated far better than others in bondage.
Nat has to preach to the sad faces of those horribly abused, as tell them to obey their masters for it is the will of the Lord. After quite sometime while touring the County, Samuel has grown exceedingly concerned with preserving his families name, and his Plantation, he does whatever it takes to please his white peers, and begins to treat his slaves, including Nat more harshly. Nat realizes that Samuel is no longer his friend, but his enemy, and as he studies the bible more he finds contradictions in it. He gathers a group of slaves, and tells them the more he learns the more he see's that the passages their oppressors have used to excuse their treatment, and captivity of slaves, there are other passages that claim freedom to all, and punishment for their masters. What starts off as a small group of six then grows even larger, as Samuel starts a 48 hour rebellion which resulted in the murder of several Plantation owners.
I will stop there for I don't want to spoil the rest of the story. There is a love story built into this film as well. As many scenes involving Nat's wife contribute to his hatred for the slave owners. The film does show the depressing reality that was slavery in the south. Two years ago we got the movie, 12 years a Slave which was as equally hard to watch, but a much better put together film than this one. I will say through, I liked this film a lot, and there is clearly potential in Nate Parker. Some of the images in this movie were incredibly haunting, and the violence was brutal, but other moments fell into Lifetime TV movie territory, and much of the dialogue seemed contrived as if they tried too hard to make these characters seem Southern, often saying cliched phrasing a slang from that time period without it sounding natural.
I have no doubt The Birth of a Nation will receive a few nominations come next year, but I do not believe it is Best Picture worthy. The production design, and cinematography should be praised, but mostly everything else fell a little short for me. I do give it four stars for the tremendous effort of it's first time director. Nate Parker tackled a tough story for his first movie, and nearly pulled it off. Nearly. We shall see what he has in store for his for his next film.