Every year at Sundance, one film seems to emerge from the festival with the sort of buzz that carries it through a full cycle of anticipation, culminating in an often successful awards push. Whether it’s Precious, Fruitvale Station, Whiplash or Boyhood, its status as a launching pad is easy to see. In 2016, the film that rode the wave out of Park City was Nate Parker’s historical Nat Turner biopic The Birth of a Nation. Seen as especially trenchant in the wake of the Oscars’ diversity controversy, the film became a guaranteed Best Picture front runner before the previous year’s ceremony had even occurred. Unfortunately for Parker, the tenor of the conversation changed in August when rape allegations against him and his co-writer Jean McGinn Celestin resurfaced, shrouding the film and its director/writer/producer/star in controversy. Now, a few short months later, The Birth of a Nation sees release in theaters across the United States with a far different kind of buzz than it had in January. Thus the question becomes whether the film can stand on its own, or whether it will be subsumed by events that exist outside of it.
The film follows Nat Turner from his time as a precocious slave boy who teaches himself to read, resulting in him being brought into the plantation house to be taught by the Turner family matriarch. She won’t let him read regular books (they’re for whites only), but she does give him a Bible to practice his reading. The narrative flashes forward to a fully grown Nat (Parker), who has taken his Bible study to heart, leading prayer services both for his fellow slaves and the whites running the plantation. His master, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), takes him on tours of other plantations to preach the gospel of subservience, cherry picking the scripture at the behest of the masters to domesticate their slave population. Samuel is a generally good master (as slave owners go), though he does have a weakness to the drink, but the conditions Nat sees on his travels are far more cruel and intolerable than his own. And when Nat’s wife, Cherry (Aja-Naomi King) is taken advantage of by Samuel, there’s only one avenue left: bloodshed.
Despite the seismic shift in public opinion that has taken over the narrative surrounding The Birth of a Nation since the summer, it is still a movie. Judged on its own merits, Parker’s look at the life of Nat Turner generally stays within standard biopic conventions. Pointedly named after D.W. Griffith’s infamous 1915 silent epic glorifying the KKK as America’s saviors in a post-Civil War world, Parker seeks to redefine the title by shining a light on the abhorrent treatment of slaves in the antebellum South. Parker does not pull punches when presenting Nat with the true depravity of slave owners, providing a sobering reminder that even if he is not being actively abused like those he visits to earn his master some extra scratch, there is far more at stake than his own personal well being. These moments are when Parker is at his best as a director, his portrayal so powerful and uncompromising that you want to turn from the screen rather than confront the atrocity head on. It is in those moments that The Birth of a Nation is at its most vital and substantial, showing glimpses of the type of movie that could wow Sundance. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t live up to them.
Parker is a magnetic actor, with fire in his eyes, pain etched onto his face and a commanding voice, playing the role of Nat Turner well. His skills as a writer and director, though, leave quite a bit more to be desired. Perhaps the fact that 12 Years a Slave was released barely three years ago serves to highlight his deficiencies; he can handle big moments well, but rarely beyond that does he reach of heights of the likes of Steve McQueen as a visual artist. His screenplay is average at best and disappointing at worst, with Parker inserting a rather heavy-handed montage at the beginning of the third act that could not be more superfluous, the result of a script seeking to explain itself too often when it is simply not needed. He has a lot of story to tell, following Nat from childhood through his ill-fated rebellion, and by confining his life and relationships to barely two hours, it cannot help but feel too compressed. As Hollywood blockbusters pad their run times, fatigue for longer and longer films can set in, but there are certainly times where additional time to let the story breathe can work wonders. Too many characters get the short shrift, reduced to little more than placeholders. Too many moments are passed by too quickly, trivializing their potential impact. Many of the ideas are good, and the performances are roundly strong, but throughout The Birth of a Nation, it remains an arm’s length away.
After everything that has happened surrounding The Birth of a Nation, after the rapture at Sundance and the ugliness of August, it’s a bit surprising that, now that it’s here and been released, it’s nothing more than an acceptable if a bit rushed biopic that offers little to nothing of value compared to more artful pieces on slavery like 12 Years a Slave and Roots. It is likely Parker’s personal controversies will sink the film’s awards ambitions, and while it is frustrating to see a film’s perception tarnished by events that are completely external to it (though that concept in general is a much larger and thornier subject for another day), the final product is not particularly worthy of its Sundance plaudits. There are definitely aspects of The Birth of a Nation that are worthy of a look, and it is not a poor film by any means, but it is startlingly mediocre. Years from now, the story of The Birth of a Nation will likely be more about the circumstances external to it than internal to it. That almost seems fitting now. It simply is not worth the cascade of words that has been written about it.