By Christian DiMartino
There’s a lot of buzz surrounding Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, and that’s meant in more ways than one. On one front, the film is gaining a lot of Oscar buzz. On the other, Parker himself has received a bit of scrutiny due to a rape trial back in 1999 (for which he was acquitted). So, where to turn? Allow me.
When it comes to actors or really anyone with talent, I look at the talent. Take Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. Do these folks have their demons? Uh, duh. But yet they’re both tremendous talents. So, it must be noted that Parker has also, with this film, proven himself to be a tremendous talent. No form of controversy should be able to stand in the way of the excellence of The Birth of a Nation.
It’s one of the year’s best.
Here, in some ways, Parker has made an American version of Braveheart. It’s a tragic, disturbing, and at times, even thrilling film, and one that can’t be shaken off easily. Often times with biopics, or really any film in general, I find myself wondering: why did this story need to be told? What about this story stands out. Well, that thought might occur while watching The Birth of a Nation… until it’s glorious last half hour. It’s then that the genius of Parker’s film is established. We’ve gotten to know this character, we’ve seen what he’s seen, and even though his actions feel somewhat irrational, we stand behind him anyways (That is, unless you’re a Klan member).
Parker himself plays the film’s protagonist, Nat Turner, but doesn’t show up until about twenty minutes in. The film opens with his childhood. He lives in a shack on the Turner plantation (the main Turner resident is the matriarch, played by Penelope Ann Miller) with his family. Nat is pretty well read, compared to most of the slaves, and even has a friendship of the sorts with the son of the plantation owners, Sam. Upon discovering that he can read, the Miller character introduces him to the Bible, which will serve later in the story.
Then flash-forward maybe twenty years. Nat is pretty much Sam’s (Armie Hammer) right hand man. The two appear to be friends, and yet their relationship is one of the most interesting dynamics of The Birth of a Nation. They’re friends, but considering the nature of their friendship, we feel that it’s not all as it seems. Considering that Nat himself even knows how to read, he is soon asked go around to other plantations, and preach the gospel. It is on these trips that the basis of the film begins to develop.
While on these trips, Nat experiences horrors that he wasn’t fully aware of. These horrors (which I will avoid spoiling) even end up affecting him. And so it is then that he has an awakening: God has chosen him to lead a rebellion. So, Nat and a group of other slaves join forces, and man, do they lead that rebellion.
What transpires onscreen is something dark, fascinating, and disturbing. Possibly even more disturbing than Steve McQueen’s flawless Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave. There is one scene in particular that, for the first time in a long time, forced me to shield my eyes. What does this mean? Two things: one, I might be a sissy, and two, Parker is doing anything other than playing it safe.
Parker is portraying one of the ugliest chapters in American history, and in the process, further reminding us of the pure evil of the times. He’s rubbing the ugliness in our faces. But it’s certainly effective. That there is filmmaking.
There’s some interesting narrative choices made, mainly the dream sequences, that don’t quite work. They can just sort of feel slapped in there. Ah, but to hell with it. The last half hour is spectacular, to say the least. At one instant triumphant and the next undeniably tragic. Turner’s story is tragic in more ways than one. There’s an obvious way, but the way I’m referring to is how a nice, well-educated man could have been mortified to the point of violence. The delivery of this is remarkable, to say the least, because of the pitch perfect performances.
It would be a real shame if the Academy decided to give this film a pass. Yes, the season is still early and yes, there’s some films that haven’t even been screened yet. But when it all comes down to it, The Birth of a Nation is a near perfect and important film. An excellent piece of filmmaking, and something of an art form.