The Birth of a Nation is a film designed to challenge various parts of me. There is a righteous part of me that sees a film recounting a historical event tying into relevant topics still affecting America today, as the nation continues to court more and more woke individuals. The other part concerns my role as one who critiques film and sees a lot of ambition being outdone, at times, by narrative and budgetary restraints. It is unfortunate that a film providing such a showcase for strong performances and evocative imagery is not more successful, but it does plenty to unpack a lot of clear anger in how history and beyond has been a struggle for many.
Nate Parker writes, directs, produces and stars in this film as Nat Turner, the enslaved preacher who turned into a rebellion leader for a brief period in 1830s Virginia. The film focuses less on the slave rebellion itself and more on what events led up to a violent 48-hour period that is talked about in different lights, depending on what high school you attended. Opening on Nat as a child, we quickly learn the boy can read, which leads him to studying the Bible. As an adult, Nat eventually becomes a preacher to fellow slaves and is soon lent out by his master, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), in exchange for profit.
This middle section is easily the film at its most effective and daring. Parker has a certain command on screen that makes his various sermons fulfill their requirements. While not seen in full, we get a good sense of what it takes for a man to overcome a circumstance of being hired to preach in an effort to depart good words on the horribly treated slaves he is being brought to speak with. It is here we see the seeds of rebellion planted, as Turner’s clever turns of phrase appease the masters, while having double meanings for his newly acquired congregation. It also speaks to the power of religion, which most certainly prompted the choices in Turner’s life.
These sequences also lead to the intentionally hard-to-watch moments that portray just how horrible the conditions in the Antebellum South were. As Samuel and Nat travel to various plantations, The Birth of a Nation puts plenty of emphasis on the awfulness of this time. In all of this, Samuel, who is initially seen as fairly respectful towards his slaves, becomes more and more corrupted by his needs and becomes just another horrible white man using black humans no differently than inanimate objects. To his credit, Hammer is great in the role, as Parker clearly plays with the image of this seemingly privileged white actor to show a character shrouded by difficulties.
Elsewhere, the film has to work through other issues. From the start, it seems clear that Parker is examining a lot of ideas that he’s doing his best at to capture as a filmmaker making his feature length directorial debut. The first third of the film makes some clear proclamations, but also feels hastily edited and unsure of what’s most necessary. A lot of the dialogue throughout feels overwrought (though a film like this has to somewhat be that way, I suppose) and the structure of the story nails a lot of clichéd elements that set the film in more of a familiar mold than expected.
Most notably, the film invents a moment involving the assault of Turner’s wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) and utilizes this as one of the final straws to move Nat towards rebellion. It’s an odd turn when you consider slavery already being one of the worst things, but the film uses this moment and seems bent on having a personification of evil by various individuals (most notably Jackie Earle Haley’s role as a sinister slave patrol captain). No doubt this ideally means the climactic battle can feel more personal because of the familiar faces being taken down. Still, to what extent does that allow the film to be more effective?
For a film bent on opening some eyes, it is a shame that both the construction of the narrative and the small budget only allows the slave rebellion to display so much carnage. Not that a Tarantino level of violence is necessary, but the climactic battle is a far cry from anything seen in Django Unchained, let alone Braveheart, to which this film owes plenty of credit to. That is also to say nothing of the restraint shown in seeing the extent of the violence during this 48-hour period (not just the burly white men were killed).
Still, to what point do some of these things matter, when considering what else the film is putting out there? Aside from some character-related moments, The Birth of a Nation is not exhibiting subtle filmmaking. From the use of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to the shot of a young white girl leading along a young black girl by way of a rope around her neck, there is plenty here to provoke a response and easily be looked at through a lens of those finding modern times to be similarly difficult.
Additionally, putting aside any other thoughts regarding Parker outside of this film, I can admire a black man trying to appropriate and re-purpose the title “The Birth of a Nation”. If the film were stronger, this cause would be an even greater, but the awfulness that came with the celebrated D. W. Griffith film (from a cinematic standpoint) can now be counter-balanced by something justly confrontational and tied to where America is today.
To what extent this film will have an effect I do not know. I walked out of 12 Years a Slave thinking I just saw a future Best Picture winner (I was right). That feeling was not here with The Birth of a Nation. It is held back by narrative convention and a general lack of polish that could have allowed the film to come off even stronger. That being said, the film does function as a cinematic mission statement of sorts and one that can be viewed as provocative on its own, but easily when placed against current events. It’s another film about slavery, yes, but as much as some want to move on, filmmakers such as Parker put something like this out because of how much we may not actually have.