By: Muneeb Arshid
When the majority of people keep telling you to watch out for a film that could be contending for the Oscars, a year in advance, it is definitely something to take note of. Now that The Birth of a Nation is finally getting its wide release this week, 10 months after it premiered at Sundance, is that sentiment still valid? Let me try and work through that slightly.
The Birth of a Nation has gone through quite the tumultuous time trying to find its way on the big screen. I watched this at the Vancouver International Film Festival where the director and star of the film, Nate Parker, made an appearance explaining the process and the difficulties he went through in the making of the film. The film had been on various production tables for the last 8 years trying to find funding to proceed. However, each time the film would find some hope in being made, some new hurdle would knock the production back down. Parker made the decision to solely focus on making the film 2 years ago, which meant that he had to surrender many of his outstanding projects, citing that this was a film that he absolutely wanted to be made. So, here we have it, the Grand Jury prize winner at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival that will surely have you thinking back to the great Academy Award Winner, 12 Years a Slave, a comparison that will come up often.
The Birth of a Nation is the story of a slave named Nat Turner (Nate Parker), who as a child is taught to read the Bible by his, relatively tame, master’s mother (Penelope Ann Miller as Elizabeth Turner), who observes that he has been teaching himself to read. It eventually leads to Nat becoming a pacifist preacher while being enslaved to Armie Hammer‘s Samuel Turner. When Turner finds himself in hardship running the cotton plantation after his father dies, he uses Nat’s ability to preach pacifism, and sells his services to other slave owners who are having trouble controlling their slaves. As Nat has had a relatively calm life on the plantation, with relatively calm masters, these are his first experiences of white slave owners acting horribly against the coloured slaves. Eventually, Nat realizes that the pacifism that he’s preaching isn’t working out and has to take a more aggressive approach, organizing a full-blown rebellion.
The reasons as to why this film is receiving comparisons to 12 Years a Slave are apparent. The subject topic, and the way slavery is depicted are very similar in the two films. However, what is lacking here in Birth of a Nation is a central plot thread that would hold the story and the film together, like it did for 12 Years a Slave. Yes, the film does a great job is setting up Nat’s character from childhood to adulthood, and how his life experiences ultimately cause him to rebel. However, the stuff around him, isn’t quite as clear, in terms of the circumstances that are causing the rebellion. Don’t get me wrong, the slavery issue would be enough for the plot of the film, but so much focus is put on Nat’s character and his upbringing that it starts to detract from the circumstances around this character which are much more important in shaping him as well as the rebellion itself.
12 Years a Slave was much more successful in shaping the animosity between the slave owners and the slaves as we were shown the backstory and the harsh conditions that Solomon Northup had to endure while also showcasing the brutality of slave culture in the US. It was also able to show the brutalities of being a slave at the time, and the conditions that the slaves had to live through. It felt as though it was a more honest representation in 12 Years than it was in Birth of a Nation, where the story focused on Nat, but was pictured in more rosier circumstances, with the atrocities of slave culture only being highlighted as a form of “shock incidences.” The film felt as though it was ticking boxes off to show certain forms of abuse against slaves just for the purpose of including them in the film. The depictions in 12 Years felt like a progression of how Solomon was being treated after being kidnapped and that there were consequences to him, or the men and women around him, or even the slave owners themselves.
That’s not to say that the film is completely off base, and shouldn’t be watched. There are many things the film does do right, with the character development being right on top. The progression of both the characters and the relationships of Nat and Samuel were very well done, showing how the two as kids were as close to friends as could be, considering the situation. That friendship was actually a good depiction of the more liberal views that Samuel’s father had when dealing with his slaves. Once they grow older, we see the relationship between then change because of changes at the plantation, but also changes in roles and relationships between the two men. The digression of their relationship as the film progresses makes a lot of sense with the changing sentiment of Nat and his beliefs, culminating with the rash decisions made in the rebellion. The supporting characters are also well cast, especially the actors portraying the despicable, harsher, white slaveowners, no matter how offensive and gross they may be. One criticism of the characters could be the female characters, whose stories aren’t as well developed, and aren’t necessarily fleshed out, save for Nat’s wife, whose storyline is a major theme of the film.
It’s hard not to compare this film to the immaculate, and heart-wrenching, 12 Years a Slave, which was able to successfully tell a succinct story about the slave era in the USA while also leaving a mark on every person who watched the film either in theatres or at home. For me, the major difference was exactly that, that once the closing credit roll started, I didn’t have that same feeling that I had 3 years ago after watching 12 Years, rather, I thought it was good film, one that had to be made, but probably isn’t the Nat Turner film that we required. That Nat Turner film is still out there, waiting to be made with a far more quality touch than what we find here.
The TFL team, appoint a grade of C+ (6.8/10) to The Birth of a Nation.