Throughout the year, The Birth of a Nation has been the hot-button film to beat in this year's awards race. After a record breaking acquisition at the Sundance Film Festival, and reports of standing ovations and applause-stricken audiences, expectations for the film were set pretty high from the start. Sadly, Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation strikes a wildly uneven tone, in a beautiful, but confused, first film. The results are more frustrating than profound, leading to an overall underwhelming finished product.
Nat Turner (Parker) is one of the most notable figures in African American history, as his 48 hour rebellion went down in history as one of the bloodiest chapters in the history of slavery. Through the lens of The Birth of a Nation, we get to know the boy who would eventually become the man behind the history. As he finds a niche outside of field work, thanks to his education in the word of Christianity, Turner uses the good word to motivate his compatriots to arms.
It's not that the story of the Nat Turner Rebellion isn't worthy of a cinematic experience that details the true hardships of the man himself and his followers. It's just that The Birth of a Nation really isn't that film. If you combine Steve McQueen's art installation sensibilities from 12 Years A Slave with the blood soaked vengeance of Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, you get the basic gist of what The Birth of a Nation ends up becoming once the sum of its parts is totaled.
And yet, the atrocities we are shown on screen aren't as extreme as either of the films we've just mentioned. Not to mention, The Birth of a Nation decides to start the film in the format of a straight biopic, showing Nat Turner's early life and the path that lead him to become a preacher in the first place. This leads to the film exhibiting a much lighter, less harsh tone than marketed in the ad campaign for its release, only to take some quick left turns into the darker corners of the film's history.
By time The Birth of a Nation reaches its third act, the film is a tonal mess as it depicts its rebellion with a sort of grindhouse glee that doesn't fit the scenes that come before this. Take, for example, the haunting image of Nate Parker standing over his white owner's bed as a specter of death, only to bury his axe into the man's (Armie Hammer) chest. This officially signals the beginning of the film's slaughter. And yet, it's not a somber, serious moment of grave implications. If anything, it's a scene of great vengeance and furious anger that belongs in a different film.
However, Nate Parker's debut as an actor/writer/director isn't a complete wash, as his central performance as Nat Turner is electrifying. Not to mention, his supporting cast contains extremely solid work from Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Aja Naomi King and Mark Boone Jr. - who helps keep the first half of the film light with his comedic relief as a local preacher. Parker's The Birth of a Nation is also an extremely beautiful film to look at, with night shining just as beautifully as day, though some of the imagery the director chooses to use is a bit heavy handed.
Overall, while a film like The Birth of a Nation aims to be provocative, the end result in this scenario is a bit too on the nose when it remembers to make a point. A film created as more of a reaction to modern politics, rather than focusing on history, it's a gorgeous mess that could have stood to be edited just a little more in the script phase. Still, Nate Parker is a talent to look out for, and with some more work, he might get that incendiary masterpiece he was looking for with this film. Unfortunately though, today is not that day.