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Movie Review: ‘Birth of a Nation’ Shouts with Shock and Cliché

Is The Birth of a Nation the influential film it aims to be? Read our movie review to find out:

There are few times when I find myself uneasily frustrated with a movie such as The Birth of a Nation on so many levels. For every quintessential moment of disturbing racism from America’s slavery era, there’s a disappointing cliché where the music must swell and bland dialogue must be spoken. For every moment that evokes a dark sense of drama, there’s another that borders on being unintentionally comical.

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One of the intense moments in ‘The Birth of a Nation.’

Directed and written by Nate Parker, it is a movie that deals with racism, violence, religion and revenge, never settling on one topic or tone.

But maybe that’s the point of Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, which could play to a number of different notes. We could examine it from the religious angle in which slave/preacher Nat Turner (Nate Parker) cherishes the word of God, arriving at the decision for a massacre of slave owners through his own faith. We could look at it from a war aspect of how violence begets more violence with no morality to such an ugly world of racial division.

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Armie Hammer appears alongside Nate Parker.

Or we could view it as a simple revenge story in which Nat leads a rebellion seeking bloody justice on those evil white folks. In a moment where Nat drives a knife into the throat of a white man that beat his wife, there was a rousing applause from the screening audience. This was the same clapping I heard during Antoine Fuqua’s Olympus Has Fallen and The Magnificent Seven; the clapping brought forth at the moment when the noble hero finally slays his cartoonishly evil villain.

My initial reaction to such a sequence was disgust, the way such brutality came packaged as a crowd-pleaser. But I thought more about the entire movie over a few days and eventually came to the conclusion that Parker’s picture is more-or-less a mirror for the audience.

One person will look at The Birth of a Nation and see it as a unique commentary on racial relations turning ugly to the point of graphic violence. Another will see a thrilling picture where a black hero kills all the ignorant white folks. Another will interpret its message as encouraging racial violence or commenting on pointlessness of faith. And another will see the exact opposite.

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The tense moments are often outweighed by the melodramatic.

There’s enough in the movie to warrant several views, but in a most scattershot method. When one slave slays his master in the night, he chases him out of his house, corners him with his militia of black slaves and proceeds to chop off his head. To drive home a point about the grisly violence, the scene ends with the slave holding up the severed head as if he were a serial killer in a slasher picture, admiring his kill. The audience erupted with gasps, laughter, scoffs and ewws.

It’d be easy for me to simply dismiss the movie as a kill-all-white-folks movie, especially the way every single white character is portrayed as either a mustache-twirling redneck or a standoffish wimpy loser. This could all be part of Parker’s master plan though.

Perhaps he wants the audience to confront such heavy subjects and not in the manner we expect. He can shift in an instant from the light-hearted romance of Nat meeting his true love to the vulgarity of a slave getting his teeth chipped out. It’s as if Parker cannot decide between making a safe historical drama or a gritty depiction of white-hot racial tensions.

Read more to get the rest of our movie review for Birth of a Nation:

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