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Sundance Review: The Brilliance of ‘Birth of a Nation’ Is Bigger Than the Movie

Sundance Review: The Brilliance of 'Birth of a Nation' Is Bigger Than the Movie

READ MORE: The 2016 Indiewire Sundance Bible

Nate Parker’s crowdpleasing “The Birth of a Nation” establishes its cultural heft before a single image is shown. The actor-turned-director opens his portrait of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave revolt with a quote from Thomas Jefferson that concludes God’s “justice cannot sleep forever.” While directly addressing the way the spiritually empowered Turner’s oratorical powers fueled his uprising, the line also reflects the project itself. Repurposing the title of D.W. Griffith’s infamously racist silent epic, Parker’s “Birth of a Nation” is a sturdy, halfway decent piece of filmmaking, but it’s also a galvanizing statement.

With Parker as its lead, “Birth of a Nation” tracks Turner from his frantic childhood experiences — when his father escaped slave hunters and a kindly white owner taught the boy to read — to his young adult years, which found him preaching the Bible and steadily developing a radical stance toward his oppressors. During that time, he forms a curious bond with his seemingly benevolent owner (Armie Hammer), finds a wife (Aja Naomi King), and fathers a child, all of which fuel a moral code that merges fire-and-brimstone rage with activist fervor. Beautifully lensed by cinematographer Elliot Davis (whose credits range from “Out of Sight” to “Twilight”), “Birth of a Nation” unfolds with the tapestry of a big period drama that today’s studios clearly shy away from making.

READ MORE: Before Conquering Sundance With ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ Nate Parker Directed This Powerful Short Film

While Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” was a more sophisticated, artful means of reckoning with slavery’s past, “Birth of a Nation” plays like a formulaic but undeniably pointed corrective to mainstream American cinema. Its landmark Sundance deal — $17.5 million plunked down by Fox Searchlight — speaks directly to the embarrassing market gap for black history in the movies. Produced outside the system (by an actor infuriated by the dearth of substantial black roles, no less) and now grandfathered into it, the narrative surrounding “Birth of a Nation” holds more power than the actual film. But this weight is also embedded in Turner’s treatment of the material.

Turner’s 48-hour rebellion, which culminated in hundreds of executions (including his own), unfolds in the final act with a wild cacophony of bullets, smoke, and blood. Turner’s barnyard showdown against a white posse apes the images of “Braveheart” as it tracks the two groups’ collision in slo-mo. In the heat of the action, Turner sinks a blade into the heart of a white aggressor as their eyes meet, recalling a similarly harrowing moment in “Saving Private Ryan.” Parker seems to run these tropes through a rejuvenating filter, redirecting them toward a long-neglected narrative.

This list of motifs includes a routine sentimentalism that keeps the movie grounded in a series of conventional beats. Turner’s stump speech, delivered as the music swells and Parker cuts to various faces in the crowd, feels especially heavy-handed — but once again, not entirely vacuous. “We’re alive, seeing through the eyes that have been denied us,” he asserts, and it’s not a big step to assume Parker’s addressing his audience as well.

As a subversive means of reckoning with slavery and its reverberations today, “Birth of a Nation” can’t hold a candle to “Welcome II the Terrordome,” Ngozi Onwurah’s woefully neglected 1995 feature that starts with a mass slave suicide and unfolds in a purgatorial ghetto. The movie’s assessment of modern life, as informed by the sins of the past, is a profound mythological treatment of black identity in a fractured society — and its erratic narrative remains challenging to this day. “Birth of a Nation” makes its point in more familiar terms, and has been clearly designed for broader appeal.

Regardless of the mawkish tone, “Birth of a Nation” lays out the talent of a filmmaker in full control of his material. Among the many impressive images is the shot of a nude Turner opposite his wife, shortly after he rescues her from a vicious auction, their bodies lit only by the candlesticks between them. Much later, Turner’s camera roams through hordes of black bodies hanging from trees, set to a moving cover of “Strange Fruit.” And the final montage, when Turner’s fate merges with an otherworldly vision of the future, bring the drama’s full strength to the foreground.

End credits explain that Turner’s body was torn to bits in an attempt to decimate his legacy, a final detail that seals the deal for “Birth of a Nation” to reach its triumphant goal. As cinema, it’s alternately engaging and overly blunt. But there’s no denying its efficacy as a major celebratory gesture.

Grade: B

“The Birth of a Nation” premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival. Fox Searchlight will release it later this year.

READ MORE: ‘Birth of a Nation’ Initiates Bidding War After Electrifying Sundance Premiere

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Kassia, hopefully you said the same thing about The Martian garnering all those (undeserved, IMO) critics and awards nominations. The Martian was a halfway decent, maybe better-than-average popcorn flick with some funny moments (that scored the same grade from this very same critic as BoaN), but it wins best comedy at the Golden Globes? Okay. It’s always interesting to me in these kinds of conversations how quick some people are to decry the giving of awards to "halfway decent" films because "talent is still important" when those films are mainly non-white, completely ignoring the many, many mediocre white films that have been awarded and heaped with praise.


"halfway decent"? Come on! It seems like a OK movie gaining unfair advantage because of momentum. It is an interesting story that it needs to be told, and I can’t wait to see the movie, but I hope people don’t start giving awards for movies that might not deserve them.Talent is still important. But by only watching the movie I would know if it is overated. Sounds like it.

Heru D'auteurs

Today I discovered that Indiwire harbours really racist people who hide their names online so they can sound brave.
Cinema itself seeks to be an artform of emotionaly intelligent people however I found reading comments on Indiwire that most of them are racially charged and come from people who hide their identity.
I am not shocked but am just registering this.
Some haven’t even seen the film but are already raising dust because in their heads there is an imaginary threat from those they call ‘the blacks’. I figure if I could make sense of the ignorance I could learn to let it be the badge they were proudly. (That means ‘ say what you feel and bring out that bigotry and racism, don’t edit yourself. bring it out so we can deal with it.)


It would make more sense for white America to pay long overdue reparations — and, in return, be free of any more awards’ blackmail and affirmative action. Even funnier — who bought this movie? Rupert Murdoch. If the filmmakers are so principled, why are they going into business with the biggest dog-whistle race baiter in the country?


Already planning to release it in the next award season, this is a sure contender for a few oscar noms slots next year. especially next year.


From what I’ve heard from people who saw it at the festival, it sounds like an okay film directing and writing-wise but an incredibly timely moment–especially the week or so after #OscarSoWhite–to tell the story.


Every review makes this sound like crap. Mawkish. Formulaic. Blunt. Halfway decent. But god forbid a white critic give this a bad review. Thanks for being part of the problem Kohn.

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