'The Birth of a Nation' film review: Fine drama falls short of award season hype
This slavery-era biopic is equal parts "12 Years A Slave" and "Braveheart" that is not as powerful as either aforementioned film. "The Birth of a Nation" is a good movie that fails to live up to its Award Season expectations.
In short: As one of the few literate slaves in the south, Nat Turner (writer-director Nate Parker) is used by his master (Armie Hammer) to preach to slaves living on neighboring plantations. But during his journey, Nat witnesses many atrocities inflicted upon slaves by their masters -- inspiring Turner to rebel.
"Birth of a Nation" easily ranks among the list of 'most overhyped films of 2016.' Its record-breaking deal at Sundance (perhaps) set expectations far too high and thrust the indie film about a doomed slavery rebellion into the award season discussion. But come award season, "Birth" will find itself sitting on the sidelines.
"Birth" is a good film that has some powerful moments -- but it doesn't rise to the realm of "great." The film presents a handful of visceral, hard-to-watch scenes that effectively force the audience to witness inhumane punishments as well as galvanize Turner's resolve.
The flaw with some biopics is they attempt to bite off too much material. Movies like "Ray" or "Alexander" effectively become cradle-to-the-grave stories that span too much time to tell a focused dramatic narrative. Cramming too much biographical exposition into the story, these movies become half-baked docudramas -- which are generally watered down re-enactments with some thin narrative.
Specific to "Birth," the film plows through some requisite story beats in its mad rush to get to the actual story. Turner meets, courts and marries his wife Nancy in almost three consecutive, hurried scenes. This is repeated with several expository plot points that are more informational than they are dramatic plot points (events that increase dramatic tension).
The heart of "Birth of a Nation" is Turner's exposure to the scope and savagery of slavery and how it transforms him from a rather meek plantation slave to an impassioned rebel. "Birth" is most resonate when its committed to this story thesis -- and in these moments, it is an "A"-caliber film. The weakness of "Birth" is its drawn out build-up to the third act -- the movie takes far too long to develop, often relying on some overtly predictable plot points to move the story along to its climax.
Final verdict: "Birth of a Nation" is not without some powerful moments, but the overall movie is weakened by a story that takes its too long to become truly engaging and a plot that resorts to some very predictable plot turns.
"The Birth of a Nation" opens in theaters nationwide Oct. 7. This period drama has a running time of 120 minutes and is rated R for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity.