The Birth of a Nation (2016) Review

The chronicle of a priest turned rebel.

 

The Birth of a Nation (1915) is the first feature length silent American Epic drama ever made, it is also extremely controversial as it showed the Klu Klux Klan as a “heroic” force, and the epic also was subjected to widespread outrage over its portrayal of African Americans. Multiple protests broke out after its initial release. The story was an adaption of Thomas Dixon Jr.’s, The Clansman (1905), and director D.W. Griffith also co-wrote the screenplay. The Birth of a Nation (1915) touched very controversial topics, but despite the protests and controversy, the film was extremely popular and was a box office success. At the time of its initial release, the film was unlike anything American audiences had ever seen before, and is widely regarded as one of the most influential films in cinema, due to director D.W. Griffith’s revolutionary narrative techniques. D.W. Griffith is often regarded as a pioneer in modern filmmaking techniques. The Birth of a Nation (1915) still to this day is often regarded as one of the most controversial and pioneering films of all time.

 

Now, after over a hundred years as the release of The Birth of a Nation (1915), Nate Parker has purposefully used the original title from D.W. Griffith’s original epic. Nate Parker first began working on his first directorial debut back in 2009, after years of development and a past criminal charge being being brought on against the first time director, he has finally released his first film. With a low budget of $8.5 million, Nate Parker has written, directed, and produced one of the best historical slave films since Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013).

 

Nat Turner (October 2, 1800 – November 11, 1831) was an enslaved African American that led a failed rebellion on August 21, 1831. The rebellion took place in Southampton County, Virginia and resulted in the deaths of over 200 slaves. Nat Turner’s slave rebellion is one of the largest slave rebellions to ever take place in the United States. The rebellion caused whites in the south to further establish strict slave codes in order to exploit any further insurrections. The Birth of a Nation (2016) chronicles Turner’s life, from child slave, to preacher, to the leader of a slave rebellion.

 

Entertainment Factor:

Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation (2016) is by far one of the most brutal, truthful, and emotional films of 2016. The reason as to the why the film is sickening, is due to how Nate Parker shows with no boundaries how brutal of a time period this was during American history. There are many stand out moments that are rarely touched by filmmakers due to their controversy. Nate Parker embraces the controversy with no regrets and shows what he feels should be seen. That is what makes The Birth of a Nation (2016) stand out. It is due to the controversial background of slavery in the U.S, Nate Parker shows us a different side of slavery, the side of a child taken in by his master and being taught the word of God, and being forced to live with the horrors he sees everyday without any disobedience.

 

The Birth of a Nation (2016) is the historical, biographical drama of Nat Turner’s life, it shows his childhood, along with his days as a slave preacher. Eventually he becomes the leader of a rebellion, but Nate Parker takes his time with the character and story of Nat. The film is two hours, and luckily, the pacing is perfect, and Nat Turner has some of the best character development seen in 2016. Each segment of Turner’s life has some form of development, or emotional impact upon him. The things he sees, are the things he must live with, without question.12 Years a Slave (2013) revolved around a free man turned slave, it is considered one of the best films about slavery.  The Birth of a Nation (2016) revolves around a boy born into slavery, but brought up as a preacher. This story is original, intriguing, and interesting enough to keep you wondering what Turner will either see, or quite possibly do.

 

Throughout the film, you see Turner’s anger build up, to where at a point the only way he knows how to ventilate all his anger is through what he knows best, the Gospel. Despite all this, Turner is the center of attention throughout the film, and it is a good thing he is. Turner is very honorable, but is also terrified of what his actions might cause. He is terrified of doing, saying, or even thinking something that is wrong in the eyes of those who oppose slaves.

 

The film can establish fear of the unknown, due to how strict and brutal the world Turner lives in, is. He is a innocent person who only wants to do good, but is subjected to beatings and the viewing of horrendous and torturous acts. Nate Parker does an excellent job portraying the slave preacher, and this is a stand out role, equal to oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave.

 

The film looks amazing with some of the best cinematography shown in 2016. There are moments where it is hard to believe that the film is low budget. Every set piece, looks and feels real. Parker’s performance is believable and he truly bring out his character which makes him very likeable. Unfortunately, for the character of Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), falls somewhere in between. While Hammer does get the job done, he is not a stand out character, and while the chemistry between master and slave is interesting, it feels as if though there could have been much more. There are some standout scenes with Nat and Samuel, but considering how great of a character Nat is, it feels disappointing to see not have a stand out performance within such a great story.

 

Some of the other actors in the film such as Gabrielle Union (Esther), Aunjanue Ellis (Nancy), Penelope Ann Miller (Elizabeth Turner) also standout in their respective roles. Even the extras within the film have excellent performances as well, overall most characters in the film feel believable, and often emotional. Elizabeth Turner who was the master of Nat was also his teacher, in which at a young age Nat was brought up to be a preacher. Her interactions with Nat are often the most interesting to see considering their relationship. She sees Nat as a man of god, and in some scenes, like another son despite the racial tension during that time period. So it is often interesting to see how the two interact.

 

Nat was born a slave, and because of this, he deals with racial tension and prejudice. His interactions with others are some of the best parts of the film. He is often ridiculed or beaten by a southerner who believes in slavery. But, despite have pretty much the whole entirety of the south against due to his ethnicity, the primary antagonist is also someone from Nat’s dark past, a slave hunter, by the name of Raymond Cobb. A man driven by his hatred of slaves, to keep things in order. The first and second act mainly focuses on Nat, with few appearances from Cobb. But the scene he does appear in are often brutal and ambiguous as you never know how ruthless he will become if needed. Unfortunately, he is underdeveloped and mostly remains the same throughout the film. In fact, the final confrontation between him and Nat is somewhat anti-climatic, Cobb only shows his ruthlessness for only a few moments, not a lot.

 

There is very little action within the film, most of which either shows a small fight between two people, or towards the end where Nat begins his rebellion

 

Story:

 

The story follows Nat Turner, a slave brought up as a preacher from a young age by his master in the ways of the Gospel. The film chronicles his life leading up to his rebellion in August of 1831. It first starts during his childhood, and eventually skipping ahead to his life as a preacher who was paid to preach to other slaves to obey their masters. But as Nat begins to reject the cruelty and racism he sees and experiences in his life, he soon begins to realize that for every passage in the Bible that demands a slave obey their master, there is another demanding freedom.

 

Nat Turner is a respectful, and innocent man which makes his interactions with others so unique. Throughout the story you really have no idea who will attempt to harm, or even kill him. There are in fact many moments where Nat will see something of such disgust that it will make you sick to your stomach. There are also many occasions where Nat only wishes to do good by his actions, in each of these scenes someone will attempt to break him down or degrade him due to his ethnicity, during these events you feel his anger which establishes a deeper connection with the main character.

 

The overall story is something that has not been recently touched in cinema, and it makes the experience of The Birth of a Nation (2016) such an intriguing an original film. The perspicacity of Nat Turner’s character makes the film very emotional and sometimes agitating as you feel his anger towards the despicable people he must obey without question. The story in this film is excellent and has perfect pacing, and the character of Nat Turner is one of the most emotional and likeable protagonists of 2016.

 

Pro:

    • Excellent pacing, a perfect adaptation of the story of Nat Turner and his slave rebellion.
    • Great emotional and mental impact that often can leave you disgusted by the sight of such cruelty, or agitated by the obedience Nat must endure.
    • Musical score is commendable for such a low budget biographical drama. The soundtrack fits in perfectly with each scene and adds more emotion and connection with the characters.
    • Nate Parker’s performance of Nat Turner is admirable and superb. He makes Nat an extremely likable protagonist. His emotions are felt even without dialogue, in these scenes he often does not speak of the atrocities he sees, using only facial expressions to show his anguish, and hopelessness.
    • The side characters such as Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller), and Hark (Colman Domingo) do excellent jobs of portraying their historical characters. The extras also do a excellent job of portraying the life of a slave.
    • Some of the best dialogue in any recent film, most of which comes from Nat himself, and are verses of the Bible. The speech he gives towards the conclusion is excellent, and quite possibly is one of the best film speeches in recent years.
    • The cinematography is highly commendable, especially for such a low-budget film, and for Nate Parker’s directorial debut.
    •  Set pieces are great and look realistic, combined with the magnificent cinematography, this film looks amazing.

 

Cons:

  • There some underdeveloped characters such as Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) and Raymond Robb (Jackie Earle Haley). It is disappointing considering considering how much of a oppurtunity these actors had to truly bring out their characters. There are few stand out scenes with them, in fact they can be very forgettable.
  • Sound design is hit or miss here, in some scenes some things do sound like they really are painful, while in others it is unimpressive.
  • A final confrontation between Nat Turner and Raymond Cobb is very anti-climatic. Which is extremely disappointing considering how much of despicable characters he is.

 

Final Score: 8.0/10

 

Directed by:

Nate Parker

Produced by:

Nate Parker

Kevin Turen

Jason Michael Berman

Aaron L. Gilbert

Preston L. Holmes

Cinematography by:

Elliot Davis

Story by:

Nate Parker

Jean McGianni Celestin

Screenplay by:

Nate Parker

Starring:

Nate Parker

Armie Hammer

Colman Domingo

Aja Naomi King

Jackie Earle Haley

Penelope Ann Miller

Gabrielle Union

Music:

Henry Jackman

Edited by:

Steven Rosenblum

Production:

Bron Studios

Mandalay Pictures

Phantom Four

Tiny Giant Entertainment

Distributed by:

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Release Dates:

October 7th, 2016

Running Time:

120 Minutes (2 hours)

Country:

United States

Canada

Budget:

$8.5 Million.

 

About the Author

Gavin Boyce
Gavin Boyce is a junior at Millbrook. Most of his time consists of writing and watching multiple classic films, such as “Apocalypse Now”, “Pulp Fiction”, and “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”.
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