No film went through a more fascinating ascent and downfall last year than Nate Parker’s debut ‘The Birth of a Nation’. After an enormously successful premiere at Sundance, where it was proclaimed the Oscar frontrunner, the film was eventually swamped by controversy around Parker’s past involving a sexual assault charge. It was fascinating to watch the turn against both Parker and the film, and in many ways made me more intrigued to see it. Could the film stand on its own against its maker’s past, or was the eventual critical backlash a justified critique of a flawed film? ‘The Birth of a Nation’ now comes to Australia direct to DVD, so we have a chance to find out the answer for ourselves.
The film tells the story of Nat Turner (played by Parker), an educated slave and preacher on a cotton plantation in the Deep South who, in 1831, led a bloody rebellion against the slave owners of the properties in the area. It was short-lived and resulted in a bloody massacre of African Americans across the South, but Turner’s legacy is captured in Parker’s film and reinserted in our understanding of this horrific period of history.
Or at least, that’s what Parker clearly intends. The problem is, the film itself isn’t quite good or memorable enough to do that. As writer, director, producer and lead actor, the film is clearly a passion project for him and he certainly has skill as a filmmaker. There are flashes of visual boldness and storytelling, but there’s surprisingly very little that’s distinct or memorable about the film. The cinematography and editing suffer from irregular and unclear rhythms, shot choices that confuse in their lack of clear composition, and a tone that never settles into itself. This feels very much like a first feature, lacking the kind of sophistication that could have elevated the film. The screenplay is often very obvious in both dialogue and structure; the ‘Braveheart’-style hero narrative ultimately feeling tired and dull. For the most part, Turner’s circumstances have him in a state of comfort, and while his realisation of the horrific conditions those on other plantations leads to his eventual decision to revolt, this comes so late in the film that, when it does, you’ve already lost interest. It also means working through an uncomfortable "white saviour" section early in the film, where Nat is educated by his owners, a relationship which feels unintentionally uncomfortable to watch. We are occasionally offered some powerful moments of violence and cruelty, but when the shock subsides, you wonder if that was all they were intended to be in the first place.
Ultimately, there’s very little of note in ‘The Birth of a Nation’. The performances are fine if forgettable, the filmmaking is scattered and unfocused and, more importantly, its intentions are unclear. If Parker’s intention was to capture a moment and a man in history, he has done just that, but much like with Steve McQueen’s ’12 Years A Slave’ (2013), he doesn’t seem to offer much more to the conversation and our understanding of this period of history than that. It inevitably suffers in comparison to McQueen’s film, the latter being bolstered by great performances and extraordinary direction, and even though I found ’12 Years...’ likewise lacking, it left more of an impression that this lacklustre copy.
In the end, Nate Parker’s past does little to affect ‘The Birth of a Nation’ because it has problems of its own. It’s an interesting debut, but in no way noteworthy or warranting of the praise it initially received. It may have all been about timing, the premiere coming in the wake of the "Oscars So White" controversy, but the film itself could not support or maintain that initial enthusiasm, and when ‘Moonlight’ premiered - a masterpiece and one of the finest films of the decade - the fate of ‘The Birth of a Nation’ was sealed. It has all the honourable intentions, but never musters the same kind of fire and brimstone as its protagonist, instead fading from memory only minutes after it’s over.
Ultimately, there’s very little of note in ‘The Birth of a Nation’. The performances are fine if forgettable, the filmmaking is scattered and unfocused and, more importantly, its intentions are unclear.
PICTURE & SOUND
Even though ‘The Birth of a Nation’ is only presented in standard definition, it still serves the film well, as well as DVD is capable of. The 2.40:1 transfer maintains the film’s desaturated and occasionally highly colour-graded photography, with excellent sharpness and balanced colour. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track also serves the film very well, with nice balance between the sound design and score, and the dialogue. I’m sure the film would look better in high definition, but this DVD works well for what it is.
There’s only a fraction of the special features from the U.S. Blu-ray release included on this DVD, but what is included is welcome. ‘Rise Up: The Legacy of Nat Turner’ (47:15) looks at the true story behind the film. Produced by National Geographic in tandem with Parker’s film, it expands on the detail in the film and discusses further the importance of Turner’s revolt in the history of the civil rights movement. There’s also included an audio commentary with Parker and a gallery of stills from the making of the film. It would have been nice to also have the making-of documentary that was included on the Blu-ray, but ‘Rise Up’ is arguably the more important documentary to include, and the commentary does offer some insight into Parker’s directorial decisions.