‘The Birth of a Nation’
Director: Nate Parker
Stars: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer
3 (out of 5) Globes
The inconvenient truth about Nate Parker’s Nat Turner movie is that it’s neither masterpiece nor dog. The latter would be the easy outcome: If it was overpraised bunk, we wouldn’t have to deal with the discomfort of separating art from artist, like we do with Roman Polanski and Woody Allen. We wouldn’t have to make the ethically slippery argument that one should be able to judge, even praise and pelt with awards, a work made by someone with, shall we say, personal demons. We could pounce on it without regret — except for the nagging fact that it was borne out of peerless nobility and could even play a key role in medicating an ailing country. A great movie that becomes a hit can, after all, change the culture.
Instead “The Birth of a Nation” is somewhere in the middle, though closer to good: a movie that gets more right than it does wrong, that has much to admire beyond it being a movie about Nat Turner released at a time when we need a frank and fiery film about race in America — when we need a movie that so reclaims history that it steals its title from a movie that ends with the KKK saving the day. Its biggest crimes are quiet and subtle, and maybe exacerbated by the skeleton that lurked right there on Parker’s Wikipedia page, which was dragged out by the filmmaker himself. It’s often amateur hour, which is to be expected (first-time filmmaker, an understandably low budget for a film Hollywood would never make). It skips over certain details that would have made its climactic rabble rouser that much more galvanizing. It’s sloppy at the times it needs to be precise.
And yet. The foundation is strong, and the movie often works in practice, although sometimes only in theory. “Django Unchained” and “12 Years a Slave” both advanced and complicated the slavery movie, whereas Parker has made an old school Great Man biopic. Of course, that’s subversive, too: He’s erected a cinematic statue to a figure who’s technically a mass murderer — who didn’t spare women and children in his desecration of the South — but is nonetheless a hero. In other, less defensible ways, his movie’s very modern. Parker turns Turner into two kinds of franchise hero: the “chosen one,” destined to save his people and become more myth than man, and a superhero scoring his own origin story.