In the view of BBC.com’s Owen Gleiberman, Nate Parker‘s The Birth of a Nation is “scrupulous and honorable, with moments of scalding power. But it’s also just good enough to make me wish it had been better. To present a drama of slavery not so long after 12 Years a Slave, the most searing and artful movie ever made on the subject, is to scale a very high bar. Parker proves a competent filmmaker, but in a slightly flat, middle-of-the-road way that’s halfway between Edward Zwick and Ron Howard.
“If the film were as good as Zwick’s 1989 Glory, I’d have no complaints…but it isn’t. It features a musical score that’s atrocious in its bland sentimentality, and there’s something a little too cautiously retrograde about the whole thing. It’s like a rerun of Roots with more blood.
“In one of the most unforgettable scenes in 12 years a Slave, Lupita Nyong’o’s character is being whipped, and the camera fixes on her face (the way it always does in scenes like this) until it suddenly spins around to show us the leather tearing at her flesh; at that moment, the film slices through ‘movie reality’ to reveal a far more agonizing truth.
“In The Birth of a Nation, there’s a whipping scene as well: Nat Turner is being punished for his insubordination. But Parker stages it in the old, safe, clichéd way, with the camera never leaving his face — and that could be a metaphor for the entire film. It skates along on the psychological surface, and it’s never audacious or revelatory.”