Wednesday, 12 October 2016

The Birth of a Nation

It's fair to say that Nate Parker's feature length directorial debut The Birth of a Nation has arrived amid a shroud of all sorts of hype and controversy. From the minute it was announced, the film was hailed as the antidote to the whole "Oscars So White" thing and we seemed to be in for something quite tremendous. Then, due to this hype, Parker's history emerged, which detailed that he was accused of rape in the late 1990s. He was acquitted from the crime, the accuser later committed suicide. What seemed like a sure fire Oscar contender lost momentum amid controversy, but regained some force when it won both the Audience and the Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival. After opening to a generally solid if unremarkable critical response, the film then entered its wide release in the U.S, and essentially bombed at the box office, making 30% less than predicted and only opening sixth for the week. What once seemed like a surefire all round winner has become a mixed bag, and it's seriously frustrating that the film itself reflects this feeling. It's not that The Birth of a Nation is actively bad film making, it just doesn't quite feel ready to dive in to the story it's telling, resulting in something that feels woefully undercooked despite how confident it may seem on the surface.

In the early 1800s, young slave Nat Turner (Parker) is taught to read by the family he works for, in the hopes that he will become a preacher later in life. As a grown man, he follows this path, reading the bible and preaching to the other slaves on his household. Eventually, he is given permission to move around the local area and preach to other slaves nearby, which opens hie eyes to the bigger picture. After seeing the way slaves are treated in the neighbouring houses, Turner begins to plot a revolution. It almost immediately recalls other previous slave films, most notably 12 Years A Slave. The difference between this and 12 Years, though, is sheer conviction and dedication. 12 Years A Slave is fully dedicated to its story and its characters and the themes it is telling. The Birth of a Nation quite frankly is not. It's loaded with horrific imagery, dark dialogue pieces and morbid life lessons, but the film's almost total lack of characterisation and narrative structure mean that rather than feel the pain of Nat's journey, we just sort of wince at the gory parts and forget them by the time we leave the cinema.

A lot of this comes down to the fact that this is Parker's directorial debut for a feature film. He is simply too inexperienced to depict this story with the power it undeniably deserves. Having also penned the screenplay too, his inexperience is the film's most blatantly glaring hole. Structurally, the film is a mess. A bizarre amount of time is dedicated to Nat as a child, meaning that the story's true beginning is somewhere between acts one and two; the opening sequence is both too short to last the full first act and too long to feel like a prelude. The film's first real display of violence is also its most horrific. We watch as an unnamed slave's teeth are bloodily chiselled out one by one, and the imagery is unquestionably horrific, but the film doesn't find anything else afterwards that is able to evoke such a strong reaction. It simply lessens the blow of all that comes next. By the time the film lands on its revolution - which, by the way, takes up about fifteen minutes of screen time, feeling more like an afterthought when it should come across as an extended display of righteous and justified rage - the action is too poorly staged and choppily edited to really translate all of the emotion that it should overflow with. Parker's efforts here are admirable, as debuts go this is surely one of the most ambitious in years, but it just hasn't worked out for him.

Fortunately, as an actor he fares much better. Once the film does decide to focus on Nat as an adult, Parker shines. He is superb at portraying the sorrow and sympathy Nat feels for the less fortunate slaves, and when his perspective begins to change once the film finally progresses, the slight alterations in his facial expression and line delivery are perfectly handled. By the time Nat has evolved into full bodied rage the script fails to translate how he feels, but Parker carries it with his performance. Look, it's not that The Birth of a Nation is a bad film. There are a number of strong directorial touches here - namely a brief but memorable shot of a young white girl "playing" with her black slave by having her on a leash, as well as the film's subtle use of unfocused background light evolving from candlesticks to flame torches - but Parker is too inexperienced to handle the big stuff. The character development is lost, the story is muddled, the action is choppy. 12 Years A Slave bound its story and brutality to its characters, meaning that the viewer's horrific realisation that this was a true story doesn't come until after the film, evoking something impossible to forget. The Birth of a Nation is too preoccupied with making us angry that these events happened that it forgets to be a good film in its own right. Yes, this happened and, yes, it's an unspeakably horrific period of human history that should never be ignored, but a film depicting this still needs a lot of work to truly sell how horrific it was. Parker's debut, as admirably bold and ambitious as it may be, hasn't laid the groundwork to earn our shock and horror.

To Summarise: While its true story is undeniably harrowing, The Birth of a Nation falls victim to messy structural work, poor characterisation, and Nate Parker's frustratingly inexperienced direction.

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