Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars
Bottom Line: A somewhat faithful retelling of Turner’s Rebellion with some campy Hollywood crap thrown in for kicks. Pretty good acting, though.
Turner’s Rebellion is a very strange footnote in history to build a narrative reclaiming movie over. “Narrative” isn’t the right word, but I can’t come up with a word that fits. For those of you who don’t know, the original “The Birth of a Nation” movie was both groundbreaking movie making and pretty racist in its portrayal of Blacks as lesser human beings and the KKK as righteous protectors. So when a Black filmmaker/writer/actor creates a movie called “Birth of a Nation”, as Nate Parker has done, there are strong overtones of reclamation of a racist past in the hopes that people will remember the latter instead of the former. That’s why it’s strange to me to use a story of a religious zealot who led a failed slave revolt that indiscriminately killed slave-holding families and resulted in the brutal subjugation of both slave and freed Black as a vehicle to reclaim that narrative.
Then there’s Nate Parker’s unfortunate history of taking advantage of a drunk and passed out woman as a sophomore in college, of which he was acquitted of rape charges, of which he also shows no remorse even though he admits it was morally wrong, whatever that means. Though horrible, this wouldn’t be germane to the movie at all if it wasn’t for Parker’s use of two ahistorical rape scenes (one absolutely brutal) to drive Nat Turner’s quest for vengeance. Using the rape of a woman as a plot device for a man to take revenge is lazy film-making at its worst. It’s inexcusable in modern film. Especially for a film which has Oscar buzz. Doubly especially for a film created by a man who you can’t help but wonder is saying, “What I did isn’t rape, THIS is rape”.
Despite all of its baggage it’s a decent enough movie, though I’m not sure why there were such rave reviews leading up to its release. There are some brilliant moments, capped in my mind by the hauntingly sad rendition of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”, and great acting all around. These pluses kind of get overshadowed by pointless Hollywood moments like “the face-off” and “the betrayal”, of which the former is eye rolling and the latter is ham-handed. All of this leads me to the conclusion that “Birth of a Nation” will only be remembered for Nate Parker’s unfortunate choices both in life and in story choices and not as a narrative redefining film.