The Birth of a Nation
Directed by: Nate Parker.
Written by: Nate Parker & Jean McGianni Celestin.
Starring: Nate Parker (Nat Turner), Armie Hammer (Samuel Turner), Aja Naomi King (Cherry), Colman Domingo (Hark), Aunjanue Ellis (Nancy), Jackie Earle Haley (Raymond Cobb), Penelope Ann Miller (Elizabeth Turner), Mark Boone Junior (Reverend Zalthall), Roger Guenveur Smith (Isaiah), Gabrielle Union (Esther), Tony Espinosa (Young Nat Turner), Jayson Warner Smith (Earl Fowler), Jason Stuart (Joseph Randall), Chiké Okonkwo (Will), Katie Garfield (Catherine Turner), Kai Norris (Jasper), Chris Greene (Nelson), Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Simon).
If there is one thing not lacking in Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, its ambition. It’s a film he labored on for years, raising money independently for it, writing the screenplay, directing and starring in a film about Nat Turner – the slave who led a rebellion in Virginia in 1831. By calling the film The Birth of a Nation, Parker makes clear his ambition to spin a counter narrative to D.W. Griffth’s landmark 1915 film of the same one – considered by many to be the first American cinematic masterpiece, despite the indisputable fact that the film is incredibly racist, historically inaccurate and led directly to the resurgence of the KKK in America (the KKK are the heroes of The Birth of a Nation – they ride in and save the day in the climatic sequence, saving white women’s virtue from over sexualized black men, intent on raping them – and then Jesus blesses, the KKK). If you take cinema seriously, eventually, you do have to watch and reckon with Griffth’s The Birth of a Nation – the techniques Griffith either invented, or at least perfected, in that film give us the basis of cinematic language. Most still hold Griffith up as a master filmmaker – and acknowledge The Birth of a Nation’s place in cinema history – but most also embrace his 1916 follow-up Intolerance instead of Birth of a Nation. All of this is a way of saying it took guts for Parker to name his directorial debut The Birth of a Nation – placing it in direct conflict with Griffth’s film. It’s an appropriate title as well, because Turner and those like him, did start a movement of African Americans that still has relevance today – in things like the Black Lives Matter movement.
I do wish the film was able to live up to its lofty ambitions – and that it was as strong as a work of an art as it is a political statement. It isn’t though. As a director, Parker clearly wants to be Mel Gibson (who he consulted when making the film), as he portrays Turner as a William Wallace like figure, leading a ragtag group of men against an overwhelming more powerful enemy, but doing so anyway. When the battle scenes eventually do begin (surprisingly late in the film), its clear Parker has been watching Braveheart when he was staging the battles – the bloody and brutal, and well-choreographed. As an actor, Parker is clearly channeling Denzel Washington at times – Turner was a preacher before he led the rebellion, and as the film progresses, and his sermons become more and more fire and brimstone, Parker tries to match Washington’s matchless oratorical ability. He comes surprisingly close though.
The film could have used a little bit more of Gibson-inspired insanity. I’m not the biggest fan of Gibson as a director (Apocalypto is clearly his best film though), but Gibson has been able to capture religious belief crossed with insanity well in the past – and The Birth of a Nation needed more of that fever dream like insanity – Turner and his men, after all, killed everyone they came across – slave owners, their wives, their children – even infants – etc., and while one can certainly argue that turnabout is fair play (who many slaves were killed – including women and children – a hell of a lot more than Turner killed), there still needs to be something in them that allowed them to do that – and the movie doesn’t really address that.
In fact, the movie spends far more time showing how and why Turner eventually snapped, rather than the aftermath – from the time he was a child, and brought into the big house and taught to read, only to be thrown back into the fields again cruelly. How his childhood playmate, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), eventually grew into his owner – and while Samuel thinks of himself as a “good” slave owner, not like the others he and Nat see as Nat preaches to them, he shows his true colors more than once throughout the film. The first 90 minutes are really a series of indignities that either happen to Turner, or he at least witnesses on his preaching tour. He’ll see how other slaves are starved, beaten, chained up, lynched and whipped all in an effort to “keep them in line”. He himself will see his wife raped – by three slave catchers – the wife of another man raped (on the order to Samuel), and be severely whipped for the crime of baptizing a white man. He is forced to go on a tour, preaching to slaves – and at first, he tows the company line, reading scripture that defends slavery. Eventually, he’ll change, and read scripture about fighting back against slavery (the white people are too dumb to tell the difference – the slaves get it).
I have my problems with The Birth of a Nation. I do not like the depiction of rape in the film – there are, as I mentioned two in the film, although neither is shown in any detail. Yet both of them are seen almost entirely through the eyes of the husbands of the women raped – and the after effects of the rapes depicted onscreen are only in how it motivated the men, not the effect on the women – Turner’s wife is portrayed almost like a brave martyr, being ever patient, and trying to talk Nat down. The other woman, Esther (Gabrielle Union) – doesn’t get a line of dialogue (although, admittedly, when she stumbles out of the house after the rape, the silent look on her face is one of the most unforgettable moments in the film). I think in the scenes of the rebellion itself, Parker should have pushed himself even farther in their brutality. I also wish, he had pushed himself a little bit further in the depiction of Turner’s religious belief – it stays on a fairly superficial level. It also would have been a good idea to make some of the other characters more complex – as it stands, it’s hard not to look at the film as at least in part, a vanity piece for Parker.
And yet, I think what works about the film is quite good. This certainly does feel like a directorial debut – many first time filmmakers wear their influences on their sleeves a little too much at first, before they gradually settle into their own style. Parker has skill here – he could use a little more subtlety – but perhaps that will come in time. The Birth of a Nation is not a great film – but it’s a very good debut film.