The Birth of a Nation is a Mess

the birth of a nation movie poster
The Birth of a Nation is a great made for TV movie. There. I said it.

Nation is being billed as an important movie — a story that demands to be heard. I hear it, but my most anticipated movie of the year has left me empty and uninspired.

Since it’s double win in January at the Sundance Film Festival taking home both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize, Nation was the movie to beat in the 2017 Oscar race. The film was picked up by distributor Fox Searchlight who ushered movies like Slumdog Millionaire, 12 Years a Slave and Birdman to Best Picture glory. It’s been the most talked about movie of 2016…but for all the wrong reasons.

The Birth of a Nation 2016 gif

Director Nate Parker said he wanted to make a film that fell in line with films like Braveheart and Defiance, where the opposed rose up against the oppressors. But let me tell you, this is no Braveheart.

Nate Parker Birth of a Nation

The film  chronicles the life of Nat Turner and the slave rebellion he led in Virginia in 1831. It’s an important story to tell, especially following the controversial #OscarsSoWhite 2015 year that put the Academy in ill-favored territory for it’s lack of diversity. Nate Parker was going to be the saving grace for the Academy — he wrote, directed, produced and starred in the film.There’s one slight complication though – Parker’s controversial past.

Variety recently published a story re-surfacing rape allegations made against Parker. Seventeen years ago, when Parker was a student wrestler at Penn State, he and his teammate Jean Celestin (who has a story credit on Birth of a Nation) stood trial for allegedly raping a woman in Parker’s dorm room. Parker was acquitted; Celestin was convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to six months in prison, but the verdict was overturned on appeal. The victim killed herself in 2012.

Nate Parker film festival

Oscar history tells us that there are no secrets during award seasons and all closeted skeletons find their way into the spotlight. Even though Parker has been in other movies, and his history is documented on Wikipedia, more fame = more spotlight = more scrutiny. This isn’t the Nate Parker story though, it’s the Nat Turner story, but Parker, who has not been accused of assault since the trial, has been compared to R. Kelly, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen and Bill Cosby. Many critics are struggling to separate the art from the artist, and Parker’s interviewing skills are not working in his favor.

When he was first asked about the rape— during an interview to which he brought his six-year-old daughter—he did not mention the victim, but said, “Seventeen years ago, I experienced a very painful moment in my life. It resulted in it being litigated. I was cleared of it. That’s that.”

Despite the allegations surrounding Parker, I was able to separate the artist from his art. And to be honest, the art is mediocre at best. Important? Absolutely. A great film? Absolutely not.

The Birth of a Nation Gif

The film fails to deliver the raw impact of previous films on the atrocities of slavery. It follows a very paint-by-numbers exposition of Nat Turner’s story and the brutality of the Antebellum South. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Steve McQueen’s powerhouse 12 Years a Slave. Although 12 Years wasn’t about the resistance, it delivered more punch in every capacity that Nation couldn’t quite muster. When you compare the two, the latter feels like a cheap knockoff burdened with amateur film-making. There’s a brief scene in 12 Years with Paul Giamatti who delivers more emotional punch in 60 seconds than any of the actors in Birth of a Nation. I’m not saying that I didn’t care about their plight, but there was something severely lacking. Parker’s performance is worthy of mention, but other characters felt underdeveloped, rushed and even forced.

The Birth of a Nation gif

Biblical metaphors are blatantly scattered throughout the film to the point where I felt like I was being force-fed the material. Movies like this shouldn’t feel forced; it should feel like you’re actually watching history on screen, not like a Lifetime movie. Scenes including an ear of corn literally bleeding was the last straw in metaphorical imagery that I could handle. Other scenes felt tailor-made and poorly edited. Matt Donato says it best adding: “Same goes for an angelic incarnation of Nat’s wife (forgotten in plot after a savage beating), who appears wearing angle wings that look like they were purchased at a local costume store.” The message and intentions of the brutality of slavery and injustice were clear, but the execution didn’t quite hit the mark.

“The reality is, I wrote this film from the standpoint of a young man who didn’t have heroes growing up. I lived in an environment where the idea of a black, intellectual person of faith, that had integrity, respected his community and was willing to sacrifice for everyone, was an oxymoron. These things just didn’t seem to exist in the same space, ever.” Parker via Deadline

Parker wanted his movie to inspire a movement, but I left feeling uninspired. I applaud Parker for his efforts, but I think he wore too many hats in this film juggling the roles of producer/writer/actor/director and the cinematic focus got lost in translation.

While Parker’s past may or may not influence Oscar voters come award season, this isn’t an Oscar-worthy film to even include in the conversation. Although Parker’s history left a bad taste in my mouth personally, I didn’t let it influence my opinion of this movie. An important story doesn’t always translate into an exceptional film, and it’s okay to admit that.

Steve Mcqueen oscar clap
Steve McQueen thanks you for your time.

44 thoughts on “The Birth of a Nation is a Mess”

  1. I’m curious to see if this film has nearly the Oscar presence people predicted back at Sundance. Great review, and very honest. I know how hard it can feel sometimes to say something negative about a movie with an important story. At least for me, anyways.

      1. I’m sorry you had to deal with some ridiculously rude comments below. On the other hand, I had no idea I was witnessing history. The first time a reviewer has EVER talked about the writer/actor/producer/director’s personal life in the same piece. #Blessed

  2. I think everyone is curious about this film, and perhaps even more so after Parker’s rape controversy came to light. But that said, regardless of the important topic, a film should always be judged on merit and so I appreciate your honest review. I’m still gonna see it though, and I’ll make my own judgment then.

  3. Your review is fair. I do agree that some of the biblical-type flourishes were a bit cheesy and overall the film did get a bit overwrought. It’s certainly no masterpiece but I do see some directing talent in Nate Parker and thought the ending was well done.

  4. Pretty bad review. You claim you are able to separate the film and Nate Parker’s rape case, but you wrote A LOT about said rape case. And you use Paul Giamatti’s 60 second scene as the litmus for all the actors in this one? Really? Was his words the only thing you could identify with in 12 Years A Slave? This may be the sorriest film review I have ever read. How does one get a negative review on a navigate review? Incompetence.

    1. Pretty bad review because I wrote something you didn’t want to read? I won’t apologize for my honesty, and I’ll choose to overlook your inability to digest an opposing opinion 🙂

      1. I’m pretty sure I covered how basic the film was from mediocre acting to amateur filmmaking in editing, cinematography, writing. Not going to go into detail on that. I’m sorry you can’t respect my opinion, but I can respect yours.

      1. Because it’s a movie about a slave revolt. If she was sensitive and thorough, I’d respect her opinion. It’s a film review that focuses on a personal situation (one that I’m suspect of also) that didn’t take place in the film. How’d you like if I wrote a review on how “The Accused” was mediocre, but most of the article was about Foster being a lesbian, or about the way the character was dressed? It’d be deplorable, and I’d expect to be chastised, as I should be if I wrote something as vile as that… or this.

      2. Dude, you’ve got to go. Your incessant prattle is exhausting and desperate. You’re going to struggle to find any reviews out there that don’t incorporate the controversy behind Parker. The only thing vile is your bullying mentality on multiple social platforms. Take the chip off your shoulder and please go troll another website.

      3. AmericanNewWave– When the person stars, directs, and writes the film– yes his former bad behavior is up for grabs in the public spotlight and in a film review. If he was just a bad boyfriend or a philandering husband I would agree with you. But being possible rapist is a very very different story.

        So yes, a person’s private live may bleed into their professional lives if they have a big enough skeleton. What I find fascinating is that Parker wants viewers to empathize with the terrible things that happened 185 years ago, but he doesn’t seem to have empathy for the terrible thing that “likely” occurred 17 years ago. So yes, hypocrisy is a problem for me.

        Admittedly I haven’t seen ‘Birth of a Nation,’ but from what I’ve read, it’s clear it doesn’t have the same artistry as ’12 Years a Slave.’ IMO, this was Parker’s vanity project so he could win an Oscar. I’ll be curious to see other reviews though and I will probably watch when it hits Netflix.

  5. Pretty bad review. You claim you are able to separate the film and Nate Parker’s rape case, but you wrote A LOT about said rape case. And you use Paul Giamatti’s 60 second scene as the litmus for all the actors in this one? Really? Was his words the only thing you could identify with in 12 Years A Slave? This may be the sorriest film review I have ever read. How does one get a negative review on a navigate review? Incompetence.

  6. “but my most anticipated movie of the year has left me completely empty.”

    Sigh… ’tis a pretty shitty feeling! Great review, at least we’ll have La La Land 😉

  7. I came here from Jay/Sean and Matt’s blog. ~ Robin
    This review was not quite professional. I am not sure why anyone should bring up a director, actor or filmmaker’s personal life into a film review. It is a blog and not a newspaper nor magazine, I guess.
    In the film, “12 Years a Slave” I liked that the character Chiwetel Ejiofer played stayed calm and supportive of the other young black slave woman . I liked his ability to stay focused on his family as the “prize” to get through the pain and endure his years as a slave. I have to admit I am looking forward to seeing this movie and hoping it is much better than your review gave it. 🙂

    1. Professional? I didn’t realize I was being graded, but I incorporate news, my two cents and other opinions in all my reviews. It’s the freedom of opinion, and you’ll have to take it or leave it. Thanks for stopping by.

    2. Yes, unimaginable to review the movie while mentioning someone involved in it, especially when it’s at the same time writer, director and main actor and how the events in their lives reflect on the film or climate surrounding it. No one has ever done that in history or journalism either.

      1. Not trying to say anything to get you to feel anything but a constructive thought. You don’t have to change anything.
        When a war veteran made a comment in my first year of blogging, guess what? I listened and apologized to him for writing what he thought was a judgmental response. He is on my blog commenting still, three years later.
        No movie reporter in a newspaper should bring up personal stories to “slant” the review. If it is titled a personal background aboyt anactor it is different than a movie review, Sati. Sticking to the movie is why I read certain blogs.
        I just want to know about the movie. Of course, I am 60 years old, once a teacher and social worker who went to court to represent children. But does that make my judgment better? I learned not to say things due to causing influence on juries. Otherwise, I would not be considered a serious child advocate. Take care and don’t worry. Be happy. 🙂

  8. Jesus the fuck I just read with those two comments there. The part about angel wings cracked me up. I’m not seeing that movie at all, I didn’t like 12YaS so this one I’d probably hate also I do not wanna waste my time on ramblings of this dude and whatever movie he made here.

  9. Good opinion piece, Courtney. The film itself has been received rather poorly so far, despite the standing ovations and media attention. Sometimes timing is everything. It feels as though Parker’s film is another victim of the 2016 overhype machine. It may suffer the consequences come award season. I don’t know if you’re into hip-hop, but Reef the Lost Cauze put out a track on Nat Turner on his 2008 album entitled Vicious Cycle. I really enjoy the track. It is pure storytelling prowess. Here it is:

  10. Hey Courtney! Well I can say this was an honest review 🙂 I’ve been hearing great things about it so it was refreshing to see another opinion. I liked how you said the imagery/metaphors of the film were too heavy and in-your-face. I don’t like it when films make the symbolism is too heavy and heavy-handed. Still though, maybe a film that deals with such a matter-of-fact and black-and-white theme of slavery and rebellion demands such a direct,aggressive and at times in-your-face approach. It isn’t like wiener-dog or under the skin where there’s alot of room for experimental ambiguous metaphors. I don’t know, I guess I’ll just have to see for myself but I definitely identify with your points. You make great points about feeling forced into feeling something and it’s a sign the movie isn’t doing something right..I’ll keep that in mind when I see it 🙂

    I’ve read the comments and they’re distasteful. I mean we all have our own opinions and I trust you when you say you separate the art from his personal life. And you backed it up with some great points. On a side note, I still don’t know how to feel about Nate Parker 😦

    1. Thanks 🙂 I always welcome varying opinions to my site, but to hate on something because you don’t agree with it is absolutely ridiculous. It’s not constructive. I’ll look forward to your review…let me know when it’s published!!

  11. LOL, the haters.

    Great review! I’d much rather read an honest and personal review than one that feels churned out to meet a quota.

    I don’t know that I can bring myself to see this…to support the man behind it…but I may watch it one day.

    1. Thanks, Andrew 🙂 I think you should see it, because it IS effective at what it does, and the story is important. But, this isn’t grade A film-making at all. I’ll always be honest and fair with my reviews, which I think everyone can appreciate.

  12. There are two problems here, one is context, the other is pop culture. Dedicated readers of your site know that you fuse opinion, critical analysis, and background information into your reviews. It’s why I like reading them so much, because I’m always like, “Oh, shit, I never knew that about the movie!” You quote news articles and often discuss the lives of the people involved in the film. So you mentioning Parker’s past didn’t come as a surprise to me at all, even if it did to other people who have commented here. “On the Screen Reviews” isn’t The New York Times. It doesn’t pretend to be. Any one person is allowed to dislike any one movie for any reason(s) they want.

    In terms of pop culture… everything is currently dictated by people who latch onto an issue for two or three weeks, then move onto something else once that “thing” loses traction. When The Birth of a Nation hit Sundance, the culture was in a frenzy over #OscarSoWhite. The movie famously got two standing ovations at its premiere screening, including one before the movie even started. I know several people who saw the movie there (and since), and very few of them have liked it. They agree it’s competently made (more or less), but I’ve heard many describe it as a Made for TV Movie. And guess what… that’s fine. Again, it’s okay for people to not like a movie for any reason, be it the quality of the film or the strength of character of the people who made it.

    It’s your blog, it’s your article, so write it the way you want to write it. I applaud you for staying firm to your thoughts on the film. I got my ass handed to me last year when I said I didn’t like Selma, because I thought it felt like a… Made for TV Movie. How dare I!

    1. Thanks for such insightful feedback, Alex! Such a tremendous amount of compliments coming from you; I’m very humbled. I don’t think you’ll find a review out there that doesn’t at least touch upon the controversy…it’s news, and my point was that this “news” is overshadowing the film, and that’s unfortunate for the film and everyone involved in the film. I’m always very objective, and I like to give broad “reviews” on any given movie. Said person leaving his gripes in comments above went so far to call me “racist” and someone who “must not like black filmmakers.” It’s been a very eye-opening experience, and I appreciate the support from such great bloggers! Cheers!

  13. Part of a film critic’s life is getting a bit of abuse for your opinion, part of me can’t wait for the day I make a controversial statement that pisses people off haha.

    You were always gonna mention the rape case when discussing this film, pretty much every film review will, but surely if the man was found not guilty it should not be mentioned? but anyway…let’s not debate this, it’s a minefield!

    Good review, though I still plan on seeing it

  14. Great review Courtney! I have heard the film is somewhat melodramatic. TV movie doesn’t surprise me as I believe this was a vanity project for Parker. I’ll eventually watch on Netflix but I probably won’t review.

    1. If you review, be wary (as seen in comments above), because it seems negative opinions are not well-received 😉 It definitely was the Nate Parker show, and it didn’t quite translate well, unfortunately. Thanks for stopping by!

  15. Interesting mate. I like that you were able to separate the art from the artist. People rag on Polanski but goddamn, he has made some of the best films ever. But this…. this just sounds bland. This quote stuck out to me: “Although 12 Years wasn’t about the resistance, it delivered more punch in every capacity that Nation couldn’t quite muster”

    I loved 12 Years, especially that harsh, extended scene of the main character struggling not to be hung. That lingering shot…. I’ll never forget it. From what you have written, this sounds like garbage. I think I’ll be giving it a skip, even forgetting about the director’s past. I can get over that

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