The Birth of a Nation – Review (***)

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While it’s easy to see how Nate Parker’s film appeals to a desperate collective desire to see greater black representation both at the Academy Awards and on cinema screens in general, it’s flummoxing some nine months after its rapturously-received Sundance bow that the foaming festival crowd actually threw their hat in for it so enthusiastically. Take away the #OscarsSoWhite campaign and the controversy surrounding Parker’s dubious personal life, and you still have an incredibly average film that’s had a baffling amount of praise and attention bestowed upon it.

Parker follows Nat Turner’s (Parker) transformation from slave preacher to eventual rebellion leader in 1831, traced all the way from his childhood through to the brutal inevitability of his actions. There’s no doubting the power of the story here nor the commitment of the performers, but the visceral drama is so frequently undercut by Parker’s own amateur filmmaking instincts.

For starters, the film is all over the place visually; though countless shots are thoughtfully and imaginatively composed for maximum emotional impact, others are flat, TV-esque (not that the term means much in the post-HBO world) and wouldn’t look out of place in a Lifetime movie. Then there’s Parker’s clumsy deference towards heavy-handed symbolism, not to mention the usually solid Henry Jackman’s overbearing score, and horrendously choppy fight scene editing to seal the deal (even if savouring the violence here would be grossly missing the point).

These missteps don’t entirely sink the film – hence the three stars – but they do knock it way down off its perch, working against the generally strong performances (Parker is really great here) and righteously angry story. Even so, it’s a slice of history so potent, unnerving and infuriating that it can’t avoid placing a measure of that power on the screen, though many will naturally question whether Parker, both as a neophyte filmmaker and man of questionable moral character, is really a suitable candidate to bring Turner’s life to the masses.

A stunning disappointment if you bought into the five-star Sundance hype but certainly still a decent film when approached on its own terms, The Birth of a Nation earmarks Parker as a promising directorial talent if he can lose some of his bad habits both on and off the movie set.

***

The Birth of a Nation is in US cinemas now and UK cinemas January 20th

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