Birth of a Nation – **1/2 OUT OF 4
Director-writer Nate Parker’s film was the darling at Sundance 2016. The film won it all! It took the Grand Jury Prize in dramatic competition and even won the Audience Award for best dramatic feature. Fox Searchlight paid the most ever for a Sundance film- a reported $17, 5 million dollars. But, after the purchase Fox Searchlight acquired a case of buyer’s remorse. It seems that Mr.Parker and his writing partner Jean McGianni Celestin were both tried for rape while students at Penn State University in 1999. Mr. Parker was acquitted of sexual assault but his fellow Birth of a Nation screenwriter was imprisoned for a short time until his conviction was overturned. Their accuser killed herself in 2012. The movie just can’t get out from the bad PR associated with the accusations of rape by its principal creators.
“Birth of a Nation” shares a title with D.W, Griffith’s 1915 silent masterpiece but nothing else. Whereas the original praised the KKK and was a flawed racist undertaking, the new version celebrates a bloody 1831 slave rebellion led by Nate Turner (played pitch perfect by Nate Parker) a Virginia born slave who learned to read and became a Baptist preacher. It is a story rarely told in high school American history classes.
While not as powerful as “12 Years a Slave”, this iteration of Birth of a Nation is very conventional in form with directing, camera movements and framing rather pedestrian. It is not one of the best pictures of the year. The exuberance for this film at Sundance must be attributed to the 2016 Oscars not nominating any people of color for any Awards. (hash tag: Oscars So White) and the general weakness in the dramatic competition films.
The film is closely based on Thomas R Gray’s 1831 “Conventions of Nate Turner”and presents a time when slavery was a daily routine in America. It is a film which brings many complex performances to the screen, and, although flawed, merits your attention.