What a strange, strange trend 2016 has brought us: deadly serious movies about race and slavery in America that are nearly undone by terrible editing and ugly color correction that drenches night scenes in azure. By all means, The Birth of a Nation is better than Free State of Jones, but it's a hell of a lot closer than it should be, and a hell of a lot closer than seemed possible when The Birth of a Nation burst out of Sundance on a wave of inflated praise. It's a textbook example of a story that desperately, urgently needs to be told, and therefore the movie that finally got to tell it wins points simply for existing; but it would be very nice if we could have given those points to a different, much better movie instead.

The story in question is that of Nat Turner (Nate Parker), who led a rebellion of slaves in Virginia in August, 1831, the most consequential such rebellion in the history of the American South. It is not, primarily, a story about that rebellion, but about the man himself about whom little is positively known; in Parker's telling (for he is not merely the lead actor, but also the director, producer, and writer), the solution to this ellipsis has been to plug Turner's life into Braveheart. It's really quite striking, just how much overlap there is between the two films; not just at the level of story, either. There are even some specific shots that are taken more or less unchanged from that movie, and in the same narrative context, even (the big tell is the "making love the night they get married" scene, with exactly the same tastefully backlit nudes; most of the other direct lifts could be waved away as general types that are just part of the atmosphere of filmmaking, but this is too specific and too distinctive). This is not a problem, of course, except insofar as that Braveheart is much better-made; at a bare minimum, it has infinitely better cinematography than the clumsy, washed-out nonsense that Elliot Davis has seen fit to perpetrate. I shouldn't speak too quickly; the washed-out blue-tinted daylight scenes later in the film are merely unattractive. The real sins are the night scenes: the very first thing we see in the whole movie is a scene set near a bonfire, and lo and behold, it turns out to mean that we get served with a proper orange and teal sequence like there hasn't been for a while.

Anyway, it's ugly at worst, and merely inconsequentially bland at best, and very obviously the work of a first-time director with no real sense of what to do with shot scale; that's a pity, and I'll say no more about it. It's at least somewhat better as a story, even as a Braveheart clone that make something of a hash of actual history (this at least, is the position of Leslie M. Alexander, professor of African-American and African Studies at Ohio State, and that's good enough for me). We meet Turner as a boy (Tony Espinosa), being promised by some manner of vision that he is destined to be a prophet; hints of his impending destiny immediately manifest themselves, as he learns to read from a patronisingly kind white lady, the wife of his owner, Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller). Years later, this means that Nat Turner is something of an amateur Bible expert, which is why Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), the heir to the dying plantation of which Nat is a part, hits upon the idea of renting out Nat as a preacher to use religion to quell the unrest of other slaves, or otherwise encourage them to follow blindly the commands of their overseers. This continues throughout Nat's increasingly awareness of the cruelties inherent to the slavery system that rules the South (Samuel is relatively kind slave owner, which is to say a relatively lazy one who visibly doesn't give a shit, and therefore treats Nat somewhat better than one might expect), and is snapped into focus when he finds passages in the Bible which seem to suggest that chattel slavery is against God's will. It takes a lot of slow building for him to finally jump into action: multiple rapes, including of his wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), by white men under command of the local slave-hunter Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley), and eventually his own abuse at the hands of Samuel, the final indignation that pushes him over the edge.

Not exactly groundbreaking, and as noted above, not exactly true to history in most of the ways that matter (Turner was inspired to take action because of his religious visions, which seems like a particularly dubious thing to have elided), but it has the merit of vigor and passion. Moreover, this fictionalised version of Turner is particularly impressive as a protagonist: Parker's performance - far and away the best in the movie - is a wonderful feature-length slow burn, steadily increasing in anger until he almost quivers with, his voice growing hollower and darker throughout to accompany his wrathful expressions. So the film has that going for it, at least. It doesn't have a whole hell of a lot else, unfortunately: the filmmaking is slapdash at best, and the choices Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin made in assembling the story are rather peculiar: this is a movie about the United States' most important slave rebellion in which the slave rebellion is rather chastely kept to an onscreen minimum: what should feel like an act of God's fury channeled through the bodies of the slaves working to utterly destroy their exploiters is presented almost entirely though a banal montage, set to a Nina Simone recording of "Strange Fruit". The film transparently wants to be a revolutionary act: presumably that's why it cribs its title from the legendarily racist 1915 film that largely defined the parameters of the American feature-length film while arguing that the country's very identity depends on ruthlessly preserving the segregated superiority of whites. It wants to form a counter-narrative of a national identity based on black resistance to being controlled or killed, a veritable call to arms in an era of loudly resurgent mainstream racism. It's not easy to be revolutionary when you're very squeamish about revolutions, though, and The Birth of a Nation is rather more committed to the dictates of prestige message movies than to the dictates of radical social change.

That's complaining about the film is not, rather than what it is, and that's a bad habit. Anyway, what it is doesn't impress very much either: the editing is choppy as hell, the acting generally aimless and often given to broad caricatures, and the imagery bland when it's not outright ugly. The only real strength the film has to offer is that slave narratives are still much too rare in American filmmaking, and all of the ones that come out attain a certain inherent value and interest for that reason; but as far as that goes, this isn't a patch on Django Unchained or 12 Years a Slave, not in its storytelling, not in its cinematic creativity, and not in its willingness to stare down the violence of slavery (which is, for that matter, part and parcel of its skittish editing: compare the scene of a slave's teeth being chipped out with the hanging scene from 12 Years a Slave to see the potency of a long static shot compared to cuts that keep letting us back away from violence). It's worth seeing in a general "eat your vegetables" sort of way, but it's so very easy to look at this history and wish for so much more than we've gotten here.