Sundance Review: Birth of a Nation
Sundance is finally over, and the last review I have to give to you is the big winner of the festival, and likely future Oscar contender: The Birth of a Nation. Though the title may strike a familiar chord with film history buffs, the 2016 film is not in fact a remake of one of the first full-length feature films ever made. What Nation is, is a story about the Nat Turner slave rebellion. More specifically, his life story as a young slave who learned how to read, became a preacher, and believed it was his duty to exact vengeance on his white slave owners. The film is an incredibly ambitious and assured debut for a first time writer-director Nate Parker, as well as an obvious passion project. His name appears all over the credits, and yet with his earnest performance it feels nothing like a vanity project.
Unfortunately for Nation, inevitable comparisons to 12 Years a Slave are bound to happen, not just due to the subject matter being portrayed so similarly in look and tone, but also being released only a few years apart. As I watched, I couldn't help but feel that the movies are incredibly similar...but let's talk about some of the things that sets it apart from being a clone of the Oscar winner. There's a lot of talk about God in this film and study of the scriptures. Nat Turner believes himself to be a mouthpiece from God, and when he finally starts his rebellion...it's not out of revenge, but out of a belief that this is what God wants him to do. Religion and faith in God play a big part of this film and I really enjoyed it (that is, until the end where it did make my stomach feel a little queasy.) Another thing the film features is a really lovely story about how Nat and his wife fell in love. Their scenes together are very tender and adorable, and in my opinion are among some of the highlights of the film.
The other difference between Nation and 12 Years a Slave, if you know anything about the historical significance of this film, is that there's no "Brad Pritt frees the slaves" happy ending to be found for Nat Turner and his followers. Instead, the film culminates in quite the bloody finale. As someone who has a hard time with gore, I ducked under my coat a few times to avoid the brutality. I found the ending to be heartbreaking for both races. This is a period in history where the behavior by the majority was abhorrent, and it's hard to watch. The usual shocking moments of utter disregard of well being is on display, and it's hard to imagine how humanity was ever okay with that. But watching the retaliation when there are some arguably innocent people involved too....well it wasn't an easy thing to watch either. The whole thing, as intended, left me feeling incredibly sad about this period of time in the world's history.
The Birth of a Nation gets the period feel just right. There are the usual sweeping establishing shots of the plantation, and in general, the cinematography is very good. But there's also the little details like hiding Armie Hammer's perfect teeth that I really enjoyed. I have no doubts that come awards time, this movie will get a lot of attention, if nothing else to make up for this year's cries of a lack of diversity. On the cons side, there aren't just the similarities to Slave, but also Braveheart, and it's hard to feel like the movie is completely doing its own thing. It basically takes the best of both worlds to tell its tale...not that that's a bad thing...it's just the type of film that makes you feel like you may have already seen it before. Also to its detriment is the pacing. You wish that the rebellion could occur a little sooner, because where it's placed feels somewhat too little, too late. All in all, it's a solid film...even if it feels like something we've seen before. EMILY RATING: 8/10