Perhaps no film has been on the lips of awards season devotees longer than The Birth Of A Nation — or for more reasons. Focusing purely on the picture itself, writer-director-producer-star Nate Parker’s efforts of many years are finally hitting the big screen. The result is a powerful, if sometimes heavy-handed, portrait of Nat Turner’s life, times and slave rebellion.
As with any historical, based on a true story picture, it’s certain that Parker had to take some creative liberties in filling in the gaps historical documents and accounts couldn’t and ultimately shaping the story for the screen. I don’t pretend to have the history smarts to be able to fact check the work, but Nat’s story, as it’s presented is both extraordinary and harrowing. It’s the kind of story that perseveres throughout history on its own merits, which means the occasional heavy-handedness of the film ultimately robs the proceedings of some natural poignancy, rather than imposing thoughtful gravitas as was so clearly intended.
The Birth Of A Nation is a film that brilliantly reclaims the phrase that makes up its title from D.W. Griffith’s racist epic of the same name. (For those who didn’t spend half a year watching silent pictures for a film history class, Griffith’s innovative and massively long picture is regarded as the most racist film ever portrayed for a number of reasons ranging from the depiction of black men as sex-crazed criminals on the hunt to rape white women to painting the Ku Klux Klan as heroes.) It’s a picture that’s designed to do more than tell a story, it has something to say. And that message — a painfully resonant comment on race in America — comes through loud and clear, if sometimes at the expense of the action on screen.
The Birth Of A Nation enjoys a wonderful ensemble that brings grit and grace to every scene, even those that must have been more traumatic to film than they are to watch. And for all the artistic flourishes and lingering for effect, the end result is still a well-architected historical drama. There are moments that will stick with you for weeks after watching and images that will surely sear onto your brain forever.
And yet, it’s likely that the conversation that flows in the wake of The Birth Of A Nation may prove even more interesting than the film itself, which may be what Mr. Parker intended all along.