“A mediocre melodrama”
When Fox Searchlight acquired the distribution rights to Nate Parker’s passion project The Birth of a Nation at Sundance back in January 2016 for $17.5 million, the largest acquisition deal the festival had ever seen, mind you, you better bet they thought they had an Oscar winner on their hands. Following a year of controversy regarding the lack of diversity in the Academy Award nominations,The Birth of a Nation seemed like it would waltz its way to acclaim, award nominations, and maybe even financial success.
But in a year where many African American-centered films are getting recognition and are contenders for awards come next year, coupled with the Nate Parker rape controversy that all-but crippled the marketing hype for this film and the eventual project being remarkably unremarkable, The Birth of a Nation just seemed like stale Oscar bait that recalls the better, more impacting 12 Years a Slave from three years ago as a better, more competent point of reference.
Writer/director/producer Parker is also the lead actor in The Birth of a Nation, playing Nat Turner and chronicling the events leading up to his famous slave rebellion that saw more than sixty members of slave-owning dynasties killed on top of the slaughter and merciless torture of both free and enslaved African Americans. Turner’s early years were spent living in a ramshackle shed, where he learned to read and understand the Bible, and his later life would revolve around traveling with his master (Armie Hammer) to minister to slaves.
Parker portrays Turner with the kind of woodenness that has become just about unacceptable in biopics. His character never comes to life in a memorable way nor offers any kind of deeper insights to his motives, but rather, remains a faceless caricature of a slave throughout most of the film’s runtime. Furthermore, when Turner finally leads his rebellion and addresses the other slaves around him, we see that maybe Parker was not the ideal choice for the lead character in his own film, stating lines as if he’s memorized them for an awkward speech in a history class.
The Birth of a Nation is also plagued by a molasses-pace, plodding along as slowly and as groggily as it ostensibly can in order to come near a two-hour runtime. There’s nothing wrong with a slowburn narrative, but when a narrative is so slow that it treads on being noneventful, on top of giving us no distinct characters to understand, it makes the entire experience a bore. Obligatory are scenes that are indeed quite powerful, like the punishment a slave receives for being disobedient during mealtime, but they are also too few and far between to really sustain the picture.
Inevitably, The Birth of a Nation suffers by comparison to 12 Years a Slave. Directed by Steve McQueen, one of the finest filmmakers working today, there was a powerful film that took presumably routine moments in the lives of slaves and made them powerhouse displays of sadness and abuse you wouldn’t soon forget. To this day, scenes from that film, everything from a female slave begging and pleading to her master to have her shower because her stench makes even herself gag from nausea to McQueen’s contemplative, minute-long shot of Chiwetel Ejiofor looking off-camera, are some of the most memorable in any film I’ve seen this decade.
A new standard was set with 12 Years a Slave and The Birth of a Nation just doesn’t have the narrative capabilities nor acting power in its current state to even come close to its strengths. It’s a mediocre melodrama, with Parker biting off more than he can chew by trying to be the judge, jury, lawyer, plaintiff, and defendant in his own courtroom without the adequate experience necessary to make it all work. If it winds up getting any Oscar nominations, it will prove little else than anything that deals with the topic of slavery is welcome to at least a few consolation nominations over stronger works with more of a defining impact.