Released at Sundance earlier this year, the film sparked a bidding war the likes of which the festival had never seen before (and eventually settled at Fox Searchlight for an amazing $17.5M, the highest in the festival’s history. With a timely subject matter (especially in the heat of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy) and buzz-worthy visuals, Nate Parker’s film was already being viewed as a lock for an inevitable Best Picture win at the 2017 Oscars ceremony.
Of course, a lot has changed in since then.
With the reveal of Nate Parker’s acquittal from rape allegations in 1999 (and the victim’s subsequent suicide in 2012), THE BIRTH OF A NATION has seen the shine taken off predicted Oscar trophy. Still trying to salvage an awards campaign for a film that has garnered buzz, Parker’s personal life keeps taking centre stage and overshadowing his work. (In fact, the entire situation has sparked conversation about whether or not a film should be judged on it’s own merit or whether or not the lives of those associated with it are inextricably tied to its success or failure.)
Which begs the question: Is the film good?
It’s very good.
BIRTH OF A NATION tells the true story of Nat Turner, an enslaved Baptist preacher who lives on a Virginia plantation owned by Samuel Turner. With rumors of insurrection in the air, a cleric convinces Samuel that Nate should sermonize to other slaves, thereby quelling any notions of an uprising. As Nate witnesses the horrific treatment of his fellow man, he realizes that he can no longer just stand by and preach. On Aug. 21, 1831, Turner’s quest for justice and freedom leads to a violent and historic rebellion in Southampton County.
Bound to be divisive, NATION is a visceral experience which knows it’s objectives from the beginning of the film and drives there unapologetically. Nate Parker shows considerable creativity visually for his first outing as director, balancing slave drama with almost dream-like metaphors. His use of colour bleaches the southern landscapes in heat, revealing a hopeless landscape yet fire burns off the screen in its brightness. Bound to be compared with 2013’s Best Picture Winner, 12 YEARS A SLAVE, NATION has a higher level of energy that builds its intensity.
While I also think it would be fair to say that most of the other characters lack the development of Turner himself, the film really is about one man’s journey from servant to leader. The choice to emphasize the journey as opposed to the ensuing bloodbath (which is shorter than you’d expect) keeps NATION from viewing Turner as Braveheart or even Spartacus. Throughout the film, Turner remains a committed man of peace and of faith until the revolution begins but, even then, there is indication that this is a struggle for him. Yes, he is leading a violent uprising… but he hasn’t simply become a monster. He simply sees no other option.
Interestingly enough, the film also has a fascinating conversation about the use of Scripture by both the oppressed and oppressors as well. While he reads the passages on freedom and hope for himself, he is pressured to preach on the value of slavery while the people suffer in silence. Parker clearly wants this to lead to a conversation about who really owns the truth and, thankfully, he contains himself from directly monologuing on the subject. (It is clear in the film’s construct who the villains are and such conversation isn’t necessary.)
It’s my hope that, as the Fall unfolds, this film finds it’s audience and, potentially, awards recognition. With the conversation surrounding Parker having tainted what otherwise may have been a clear path to Oscar, I do feel like it would be a wasted opportunity for some real conversations that a film like this presents.