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Art Before Artist

The Birth Of A Nation is stirring and unforgettable


Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Birth of a Nation
Now playing, wide

Before I start, I have to get this out of the way. I believe in separating the art from the artist. If one evaluates work by its creator’s moral character, a lot of films (and books, and albums, etc.) won’t survive scrutiny. We’d have to boycott every movie by Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, just for a start. And if we reject movies starring actors who are repulsive humans, well … there might not be many left to see.

We now return to our regularly scheduled review.

More militant than 12 Years a Slave and less ludicrous than Django Unchained, The Birth of a Nation isn’t as polished as other contemporary takes on slavery but it’s far more stirring. It rejects the myth of the “good slave owner” (see Benedict Cumberbatch in 12 Years) and embodies the idea that knowledge is the seed of revolution.

Based on real events, the film chronicles the life and times of Nat Turner (Nate Parker), from his upbringing to the slave rebellion he spearheaded. Nat learned to read as a child, but the only book he was granted access to was the Bible. Unsurprisingly, he grew up to become a pastor.

Slave owners got wind of this and paid Nat’s master (Armie Hammer) to bring him to their homesteads to preach to the workers, preferably about obedience and how to reach the afterlife through hard work. These trips outside his plantation exposed Nat to the horrific conditions other slaves had to endure, and opened his eyes to the not-so-figurative yoke around his neck.

While fighting back is hardly a new notion in films of this nature, The Birth of a Nation does a very good job setting up the pieces that led to the 1831 slave rebellion. The multi-hyphenated Parker is at his best directing actors. The entire cast (including him) is superb and, for the most part, he gives his main characters satisfying dramatic arcs. Armie Hammer as Nat’s owner is not entirely dishonorable, but in order to prosper he must allow some despicable acts (he copes by consuming copious amounts of alcohol). A bit of humor that makes the awfulness slightly more tolerable.

It’s fairly obvious Parker is a first-time director. He’s too in love with dream sequences that don’t do much for the story and the parallels with modern times are too on the nose (albeit true). When one of the characters complains “they kill people everywhere for no reason but being black”, it’s hard not to think of the many African-Americans shot by overzealous police officers in the U.S.

As well, Nat’s gradual transformation into a Christ-like figure feels too simple.

Qualms aside, The Birth of a Nation has a couple of potent scenes that get seared in your brain. Parker takes some questionable dramatic licenses, but he’s crafted a film that shouldn’t be dismissed.