One of the biggest self-congratulatory circle jerks and politically correct wank-offs in the history of the Sundance Film Festival happened late this afternoon when Nate Parker‘s heartfelt but sentimental and oppressively sanctimonious The Birth of a Nation ended and the entire audience rose to its feet and began cheering wildly, even ecstatically.
This is a sentimental, briefly stirring, Braveheart-like attempt to deify a brave African-American hero — Nat Turner, the leader of a Virginia slave rebellion in August 1831. But a black Braveheart or Spartacus this is not. Nor is it, by my sights, an award-quality thing.
It will almost certainly be nominated, of course, because it delivers a myth that many out there will want to see and cheer, but don’t kid yourself about how good and satisfying this film is. It’s mostly a mediocre exercise in deification and sanctimony. I loved the rebellion as much as the next guy but it takes way too long to arrive — 90 minutes.
Parker, the director, writer and star, sank seven years of his life into this film, and invested as much heart, love and spiritual light into the narrative as he could. But the bottom line is that he’s more into making sure that the audience reveres the halo around Turner’s head and less into crafting a movie that really grabs and gets you, or at least pulls you in with the harsh realism, riveting performances and narrative, atmospheric discipline that made Steve McQueen‘s 12 Years A Slave an undisputed masterpiece.
As noted, Parker doesn’t seem to even respect the fact that he needs to deliver the historic rebellion (i.e., horribly oppressed African-Americans hatcheting white slave-owners to our considerable satisfaction) within a reasonable time frame, which would be 45 minutes to an hour, tops. Kirk Douglas and his fellows broke out of Peter Ustinov‘s gladiator training school around the 45-minute mark.
I realize that the Turner-led slave rebellion was suppressed within two days, but in Parker’s movie it’s over before you know it. I’ve been waiting 90 minutes for the rancid whiteys to get their comeuppance, and Turner’s small army is surrounded and defeated within 15 minutes? That’s not satisfying, dude. No way would Douglas and Stanley Kubrick have kept their gladiators in Capua for 90 minutes and then had Laurence Olivier‘s Crassus defeat them within a quarter of an hour.
You can call me a whitey for referencing Spartacus but The Birth of a Nation has been cut from the same basic cloth.
In HE’s version Turner doesn’t wear a halo and is given qualities that make him less of a saint and more of a tough, flesh-and-blood, hard-knocks guy. The land owner injustices and atrocities simmer for about an hour, and then the rebellion kicks in with Turner and his army getting their bloody revenge and doing their best to fight the law and the white militias for the second hour, and then the capture, execution and wrap-up for the last 10 or 15 minutes. And no religious ceremonies, no angels, no choir music and no apparitions….just stark realism.
If you ask me the Sundance hipster smooch brigade went to The Birth of a Nation determined to celebrate it as much as possible. The idea, trust me, was to demonstrate to the world and particularly to the slow-to-get-it crowd in Los Angeles how much hipper, cooler and sensitive they are regarding the 21st Century African-American experience and particularly how much wiser they are than the unfortunate Academy attitudes that resulted in OscarsSoWhite.