The Birth of a Nation Review: A Big, Loud Would-Be War Film That Makes Itself Essential

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Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation has been at the center of the film conversation for so much of 2016. From its festival run starting at Sundance in January to the rape accusations against Parker that arose over the summer, all eyes are on the once Oscar hopeful and whether audiences can separate the art from the artist. For this film, they should. Borrowing its plot structure and borderline crowd-pleasing tone from Braveheart, The Birth of a Nation is as unsubtle an epic as has ever been made. Hell, once the rebellion starts in the film’s superb second half, Nat Turner (Parker) sits atop a horse side by side with his men as if he’s William Wallace. Though, this bout of strong heroism is only after we see Nat lift his buckling legs with his arms limply draped across a block of wood as if he’s Jesus in Mel Gibson’s more controversial The Passion of the Christ. The allegories work, but there’s a catch.

For achieving this tone and sense of undeniable inspiration, the first half of the film plays it close to the genre cliches. Much like Braveheart, there’s a warm love story that’s later cloaked in tragedy and loss at the hands of oppression. Nat’s later wife, Nancy (Aunjanue Ellis), violently comes into the scene, but Parker and Ellis fail to ignite a spark of romance afterward. It forces the first half to rely on the brutalism that helped win 12 Years a Slave an Oscar. But the tone of that film doesn’t quite match that of this one.

None of these shortcomings matter, however, once the organization of this justifiably violent rebellion begins. Parker’s tone is loud, as it well should be. Most past films about slavery put up a less obvious kind of heroism, showing strength through sheer will and resilience. Here, we see the strength of warriors birthed out of bigotry. This stark difference is what makes The Birth of a Nation so essential. Though the film smartly never goes into cheer-worthy territory, at the risk of becoming exploitative. It may be poppy, but it’s never disrespectful of the facts of our nation’s cruel history.

But a film like this for a community currently suffering from more violence is unflinchingly important. It’s hardly perfect, few films that wear everything on their sleeves are, but it does an admirable job infusing itself with a direct inspirational quality. The Birth of a Nation may not make you cheer, but it will most definitely make you angry. What separates it from the rest is how expels that anger and turns it into rightful action against violent hate. Grade: A-

By Matt Dougherty

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