Movie Review: "The Birth of a Nation" is a strong story lost in poor writing and tone
The Birth of a Nation, directed by Nate Parker, follows the true story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a preacher slave who is ordered to go to other plantations to placate any uprising. But, after seeing first-hand the horrors of some of the slave masters, he orchestrates a rebellion in 1831. After killing around 60 people over the course of 48 hours, the rebellion was put down. In retaliation, nearly 60 slaves were executed and 100 to 200 more slaves were killed by roaming militia. The title of the film is taken from the 1915 silent film of the same name. The older film was directed by D.W. Griffith and depicts an incredibly racist view of the South if it was ruled by the black slaves.
The overall cinematography of the movie is well done. Each scene was very well shot and was stunningly beautiful. I was initially against the many close ups on people’s faces. They just felt awkward, however, as the film progressed and the repetition of those shots continued, I began to see that the goal of these shots was to express the conflict in their society. Whites and blacks were so divided and conflicted by slavery, and the close-ups represented the intense conflict. Overall, the shots were very strong. What I did not like about the cinematography was the many landscape shots. They were incredibly beautiful, and I appreciated them the first few times, but after the thirtieth landscape shot it became excessive. There was no real purpose to them. That is probably the most applicable sentence to the technical aspects of this movie. There were so many useless technical pieces of the film that did not serve any purpose. Like the slight zoom applied to many of the shots. Why? It did not bring any extra tension, depth or intensity. It was simply an annoying layer of the film.
Even the editing sometimes did not serve a purpose. The beginning of the movie was of Nat’s childhood, but it was such a short part of the movie and was cut together quickly. Yet, it felt to pass so slowly. It was so jarring how parts of the beginning seemingly cut out the start and end of each shot. It was only an issue in the first 15or so minutes, after that I either got used to it or they no longer did it.
But the editing and writing really set the tone for the film. Tone is incredibly important to the atmosphere of any film, The Birth of a Nation really struggled with this. The film really did not know if it needed comic relief in it or not. To give an example of this without spoiling too much of the film, after Nat Turner is whipped and left in shackles outside for the night, his friend comes up to him and asks if he is okay. He responds by falling to the ground out of exhaustion. This might not sound very comical when reading it, but the audience erupted in laughter at the scene. I sat in my seat confused at both the audience and the film. In my mind, comic relief was not necessary. All of the moments with comedy were incredibly tense scenes that were severely broken by comic relief. Because of the mix of the tense scenes and comic relief, the movie was incredibly confusing. The marketing and certain scenes in the film want The Birth of a Nation to be a horrifying look into slavery like 12 Years a Slave, but the comedy and gruesome violence makes it seem like a version of Django Unchained.
The problem with tone could be attributed to how the audience reacted. If I was watching this film alone, I do not feel that the attempts at comedy would be as noticeable or as important as the audience felt. However, the audience reaction is a good judge for how the general public will view the movie. So, if you go see this movie, you will need to be prepared to see some incredibly gruesome violence and experience considerable amounts of tension, only to be broken by the most unnecessary comedy. You will also watch a well-written movie with some beautiful cinematography that tells an under told story of a heroic figure of the slavery era in the United States.
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