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“The Birth of a Nation” looks to survive controversy and contend for awards

Without fail, every single year there are Oscar hopefuls that fall victim to controversy. Some are well founded, some are pure smoke, and some are caught in between. This week, the year’s most controversy laden film hits theaters. In fact, it’s out today. The controversy isn’t due to the film’s content, but the past actions of its filmmaker. I won’t get into what Nate Parker and his co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin were accused of and the subsequent issues, but it’s clear that to some degree, it has affected the release. Back at the Sundance Film Festival, it was hailed as a potential Best Picture frontrunner. Now, it’s possibly an Oscar also-ran. What happened? Well, at least in my opinion, hype died down and it’s being seen for the flawed work that it truly is. Controversy aside, it’s just a mixed bag of a movie.

The film is a biopic of Nat Turner (Parker), who would wind up leading a violent slave revolt in the antebellum South. We see Turner as a young man, groomed to be a literate preacher, before having that skill utilized by former playmate and current owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer). Initially, they have a close relationship, as Samuel even allowed Turner a wife in Cherry (Aja Naomi King). As he witnesses more and more injustices, he begins to become radicalized. Eventually, an act of violence leads to a conflict that in turn starts the uprising. Parker, in addition to starring and directing, co-writes with the aforementioned Celestin. Also in the cast are the likes of Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, Mark Boone Junior, Colman Domingo, Dwight Henry, Gabrielle Union, and many more. Henry Jackman contributes the score while Elliot Davis handles the cinematography.

If I’m being honest, I didn’t really see what all the fuss was about at Sundance with this flick. Parker is a talented actor and is quite good in the lead, but his filmmaking left something to be desired. His direction is a mixed bag, capable of some stirring moments but also way too eager to showcase Parker himself. It’s better than the screenplay though, which is just the complete wrong take on the material, in my eyes. It looks good, but it simply feels off. As a Sundance film, it’s decent. As a potential contender for major awards, it definitely comes up short to me.

Should the movie get past its controversy, I seem to be in the minority and The Birth of a Nation could be a definite awards player. If it hits the jackpot, look for campaigns in Best Picture, Best Director (for Parker), Best Actor (for Parker), Best Supporting Actor (for Hammer), Best Supporting Actress (for King), Best Original Screenplay (for Celestin and Parker), Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Score. At this point, I think a shut out is the most likely occurrence, just due to the combination of controversy and questionable quality. We shall see what ends up happening.

This weekend, audiences can make up their own minds and choose whether to see The Birth of a Nation or not. Both are valid points of view, so I’d never tell you all what to do. Controversy aside, I think it’s just a flawed film, though one not without its merits. The reality is trickier though, so that will be up to all of you. It’s a movie with something to say though, that’s for sure. Give it a shot if you want and see what you think. Also, stay tuned to see how it winds up faring with the awards season…

Be sure to check out The Birth of a Nation, if you so desire, in theaters everywhere right now!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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