The Birth of a Nation [2016 Nate Parker Film] Review

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AKA: The Birth of a Nation (2016), Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation
Genre: Historical Drama/Action/Tragedy
Year Released: 2016
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Origin: USA/Canada
Running Time: 120 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: R
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: A House Divided, Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property, Quilombo, Braveheart, Get Out, Tula: The Revolt
Notes:
-The Birth of a Nation [2016] is in NO WAY related to the original D. W. Griffin film. AT. ALL!

-There will be some uncomfortable truths mentioned in this review in regards to racism and slavery in America. You’ve been warned.

-The rape accusation controversy will be mentioned in this review. Both facts and my opinions will be addressed here.
Fun Facts:
-This is the directorial full-length debut of Nate Parker and was fully funded outside of Hollywood. He was an actor who was in The Great Debaters, The Secret Life of Bees, and an episode of Cold Case.

-The Birth of a Nation borrowed the name of the first ever major full-length film as a brutal inversion of the original film’s pro-KKK message.

-This is the first non-documentary film about Nat Turner’s Rebellion. This event in question was a slave uprising where they killed roughly 55-65 slave owners and their family members. However, almost 120 Blacks were slaughtered after the rebellion in retaliation regardless if they were part of this militia or not.

-The Birth of a Nation debuted at Sundance where it won the Audience Award and the U.S. Grand Jury Award. It wasn’t until after the debut screening where it was distributed by Fox Searchlight of all things.

-The slave owner Samuel Turner was played by Armie Hammer. You might know him from playing The Lone Ranger in the 2013 remake, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss from The Social Network, and he was in Cars 3 of all things playing Jackson Storm.

-Composer Henry Jackman has also scored Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Kick-Ass, and the Captain America movies.


I’m no stranger to controversial movies.

As many of those who have followed Iridium Eye for over a year now, I’ve covered films of several topics. Some of which almost got banned such as Jafar Panahi’s later works, The Central Park Five, and Jungle Emperor Leo (1997). Some cover some controversial subjects like how Atomic Falafel satirizes nuclear war in the context of Middle Eastern geopolitical matters, Ichi the Killer with it’s over the top usage of ultraviolence and sexuality, or Hate Crimes In the Heartland for daring to document the Black Wall Street Massacre in Tulsa. To be honest, I find Hollywood to be extraordinarily tame. Sure, there are movies that can get bloody or use sexuality, but the themes are safe even if it’s rated R. I swear these directors are told not to make waves in these studios, but they certainly aren’t above certain traits such as sexism and especially racism (movies like Black Panther don’t change any of that).

The latter will become imperative since the subject matter involves slavery. The Trans-Atlantic Slave was one of the most horrific events in history as people were ripped from their families, mass sexual abuse, using Black babies as live alligator bait, and even after the Emancipation Proclamation some freed slaves were sent to be annexed and starved out in Natchez, Mississippi at a place called The Devil’s Punchbowl. It’s about time some American filmmaker tried to bypass the innocuous nature of Tinseltown by making a movie that no Hollywood flunky would dare to make.

All it took was a historical event that is rarely mentioned in history books.

The Birth of a Nation is about the Nat Turner Rebellion, but in cinematic form. The situation takes place in Southampton County, Virginia decades prior to the Civil War. Nat Turner was a slave who was able to read despite the laws prohibiting Black people to have any kind of literacy. At the plantations, he’s allowed to only read certain passages of the Bible during his childhood. He’s allowed to preach to the slaves for most of his life whenever he’s not dealing with the chattel labor him and his family are subjected to by the Turner family. Nat is able to preach to other slaves in the county although he’s under watch from his owner Samuel and other slave owners. However, he sees the rampant abuse, torture and raping going on towards the slaves which enrages him. Nat decides to take action by organizing other African-Americans in the area to kill the very slave masters who’ve made their lives hell after seeing the plight of people who look like him, the suffering of his wife Cherry Anne, and by reading “forbidden” Bible passages that contradict the slavers interpretations of excusing their brutality towards their dark-skinned victims.

For a film that was made without Hollywood money, it certainly looks better than so many indie films with similar or higher budgets. The cinematography is top-caliber as it has crisp visuals while also having a bit of a poetic feel going on with the calm and brutality shown. The scenes of the plantations would be idyllic out of context, but the undertones of cruelty are felt even with billowing scenes of cotton. The images of the slave patrols are horror film fuel with the dark lighting and bloodstained imagery going on. The epic battle scene in the finale is harsher than any war film and the violence is never glamorous at all as people are shooting, stabbing, and hacking people to death. Also, the filming really captures the fridge horror of the torture and rapes that happen. Much like my comment on the second episode of Kino’s Journey, it’s not what you see that makes it creepy, but what you don’t see that will make your skin crawl. I also really liked the music as the soundtrack uses Gospel songs and African music during Nat’s thoughts of the rebellion. The usage of “Strange Fruit” by Nina Simone would have been totally anachronistic if it weren’t for the brutal imagery that is revealed in the lyrics. If you know anything about that song, then be forewarned when it gets to that disturbing scene as the song plays. This had high marks all around in regards to the production.

The characterization and acting were well done. Nate Parker portraying Nat Turner did a fantastic job. When he’s preaching to some of the other slaves in Southhampton County, you can see and feel him tremble as he’s trying to preach the Gospel as he is disgusted by what he’s witnessed on the plantations. You can also see his rage and determination as he defies the masters by quoting scripture against them. Aja Naomi King as Cherry Anne Turner was another highlight. She starts as an enraged woman who was clearly done wrong before being auctioned off before becoming much calmer when developing a relationship with Nat. I’m not familiar with her other work in How to Get Away With Murder, but I will say that she did a fantastic job playing Cherry Anne. Armie Hammer as Samuel Turner was an anti-cliche as a villain which also goes for the other slave owners. He has a calm sense of duty even what he does is clearly wrong. Sam even has a bit of affinity as he’s impressed by Nat’s preaching while he gets all the money. What made him and the other characters so fascinating as villains were that all of the slave owners weren’t cartoon brutes who say the N-word every two seconds (okay, everyone does say that world multiple times given the historical context), but the thing is they act like normal people just doing their jobs which feels like a gut punch of reality to anyone watching The Birth of a Nation. Even the women who owned slaves had this air of patronizing the slaves in subtle ways as they backhandedly compliment their “property” much like how the Turner matriarch treats the young Nat as a baby when they look at the words of the Bible. The acting was incredible as was the portrayal of everyone in this film.

Nate Parker’s directorial debut has some downsides. For starters, the subject matter is extremely uncomfortable regardless of one’s race. The portrayal of slavery is more brutal than any other film I’ve seen involving that blight of American history. If you feel uneasy watching Amistad, Roots, or 12 Years a Slave, then The Birth of a Nation will shock you. I also thought some of Nat’s brothers-in-arms were underdeveloped as I would like to know more about them. Come to think of it, most of the focus was on Nat Turner. I get that he’s the main character and it’s about his story, but Nate Parker could’ve shared the spotlight more. Some people may be turned off by the Biblical overtones. Christianity does play a huge role with Nat being a preacher slave of sorts, and the usage of scripture and spirituality certainly won’t be for everyone. It’s not a “Christian movie” like Facing the Giants or Fireproof, so don’t expect anything like that though. The most obvious uncomfortable aspect would be the fact that this involves Black protagonists exacting vengeance on their White oppressors. This will easily make the Caucasian population very uncomfortable, but I saw it as a harsh truth based on a real life historical event. Before anyone starts destroying the comment section, just calm down. There are plenty of action films where White protagonists are killing other Whites. Just look at any action blockbuster involving Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood, or several other actors of that pigmentation. You even have historical movies like Braveheart where it’s about White-on-White oppression and that’s not even getting into movies about The Holocaust. There are movies where you have non-Caucasian villains getting killed like 300, the Taken series, or even the original D. W. Griffith film of The Birth of a Nation where no one had any problem with it. Shoot, even totally fictional movies deal with fighting against their oppressors like Star Wars, The Terminator series, or the several adaptations of Robin Hood. Just because one movie dared to talk about American slaves fighting against their masters shouldn’t freak everyone out regardless if the bad guys look like you or not.

Now that I got the flaws out of the way, I feel obligated to talk about an even more uncomfortable aspect tied with this film.

Most of the outrage of The Birth of a Nation wasn’t just because it’s about a dark aspect of American history, it was because of the rape allegations against Nate Parker. Seventeen years prior to his film, Nate Parker was accused of raping a White woman (she eventually committed suicide in 2012), but he was fully acquitted by an all White judge and jury while the media brought it up long after the fact. This was totally bogus and hypocritical because this was easily an attempt to sabotage a movie that got major distribution via Fox. He was found innocent, and if a Black man is acquitted by an all White court in America, then you know he’s innocent for real. The hypocrisy is strong with the media and with movie fans bashing Nate Parker’s film. How many directors have done worse things and never faced this much scrutiny? You have Bryan Singer (X-Men series, The Usual Suspects) who is alleged to have sexually abused people. There’s Mel Gibson who was caught saying a ton of Anti-Semitic and racist things and he still has a career. There’s Harvey Weinstein who’s become a punchline for the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Even in the anime world, Rurouni Kenshin creator Nobuhiro Watsuki was caught with possession of child pornography, yet he was only fined 200,000 yen and was allowed to continue serializing the recent Hokkaido Arc of the Kenshin saga after a delay. That’s just the stuff that people know about, but if you want an apples to apples kind of evaluation with actual evidence, then the most obvious piece of hypocrisy involves defenders of Roman Polanski. This acclaimed director was found dead to rights as he drugged and raped a thirteen-year-old girl, yet he got a slap on the wrist before he fled back to France should he have faced prison time in America. The fact that he still has a career and won Oscars decades after that demonic act is just sickening to me. The double standards shown here are much worse than anything I could say about Akiyuki Shinbo fans hailing him as an anime god despite making garbage like Debutante Detective Corps, the vote brigading against I Am Not Your Negro for it’s anti-racist subject matter, or with any Hollywood plagiarism scandal tied to Japanese films and series which predate the former with how fans of the “rip-off” movies make excuses while ignoring their hypocrisies. Seriously, if anyone lambastes Nate Parker for being found innocent of a rape charge, yet if they defend Polanski’s cinematic acumen despite being a total pedophile or any of the above examples I brought up, then that shows how atrocious their priorities are. Stop this hypocrisy, stop the double standards, and please grow up. This bigotry and lack of emotional control is inexcusable.

The Birth of a Nation isn’t some comfortable movie, nor should it be. This film is proof positive with how cowardly Hollywood is when it comes to making certain movies (ask Danny Glover about that Toussaint L’Overture movie if that ever got off the ground). Nat Turner’s story really comes alive in this film. The visuals, acting, and soundtrack are impeccable in the presentation. Yes, the controversial subject matter will turn off a bunch of people and other characters should’ve been highlighted more often, but those who consider themselves brave movie viewers should give it a shot. The false rape allegations have no bearing on this film and it was people grasping for straws in order to demonize Nate Parker, yet some of those SJWs will defend people who’ve done much worse than him. The Birth of a Nation was one of those movies that is a wake up call in regards to American history as it holds a mirror to the bigotry that still lingers in this country while also destroying the racism echoed from D. W. Griffith’s original film. I have yet to see an American film this brave especially one that got mainstream distribution.


Adjustable Point System:
Subtract 4-6 points if you feel really uncomfortable about the concept of slave rebellions.

Pros:
-Impeccable acting
-Great cinematography and music
-A brave take on Nat Turner’s Rebellion

Cons:
-Lack of background character development
-Some rushed pacing in the final act
-Religious overtones can be a bit much

Final Score: 10/10 points

Content Warning: Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is in NO WAY SUITABLE FOR KIDS! The language is really strong and because it’s a movie in antebellum Virginia, expect to hear the N-word used multiple times. The violence gets brutal as people bleed, get tortured in gruesome ways, and one slave owner gets beheaded by a slave he abused. So many deaths happen on both sides. There’s a mass hanging where several slaves are hung from nearby trees. They do mention that after Nat Turner died, his flesh was used as wagon grease and his skin was sewn into relics (this form of mutilation happened a century before the Nazis came to power, so let that sink in). There are rapes that aren’t shown, but it’s strongly implied with the after effects or fridge horror. One example involves a slave catcher in bed and it’s revealed that there was a Black girl covered up with a blanket on the other side of the bed. Some female frontal nudity is there like the African flashback scenes and dreams.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos used under US “Fair Use” laws. The Birth of a Nation [2016] is property of Fox Searchlight. The DVD cover is from Amazon and is property of Fox Searchlight.

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