Cast: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Mark Boone Junior, Aja Naomi King, Gabrielle Union, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earl Haley, Colman Domingo
Director: Nate Parker
Running time: 2 hours
by Jericho Cerrona
One can feel the weight of noble intentions radiating from writer-director-star Nate Parker's retelling of the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, resulting in the deaths of some 60 slave owners and their families (including women and children), which incurred widespread lynching and murdering of slaves throughout the South in retaliation. But noble intentions does not a good film make, and The Birth of a Nation, despite its topicality and obvious zeal, is nowhere near a successful movie. The film is part messianic hero worship story, part Braveheart-style revenge epic--but mostly, it lands somewhere closer to a slickly made advertisement for it's triple threat creator, Nate Parker.
The idea of being reminded of the atrocious crimes against humanity perpetuated by the United States is noteworthy, but unlike Ava Duvernay's recent documentary 13th, which examined the fallout of slavery from the Jim Crow laws all the way to the current criminal justice system, The Birth of a Nation is a simplistic rendering of a complicated narrative. By all accounts, Turner was a polarizing figure; an educated African-American shielded by whites as a preacher, who was also given to tormenting visions and delusions of grandeur. Parker hints at conflicting impulses; such as his inciting of scripture to both bolster the white's beliefs as well as eventually contradicting them, but he ultimately strays from anything that would give his film notes of nuance or complication. In effect, the film becomes a basic hero-martyr story about a man driven to uprising and violence simply because he was "chosen by God" and watched over by angels. From an ideological standpoint, framing things this way can have a cathartic effect by giving a voice to the voiceless, but it also means that aesthetically, Parker's vision can come across self-regarding and problematic.
Scenes in which Turner is incensed by the sexual abuse of women by white slave owners, including that of his first wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King) and another woman named Ester (Gabrielle Union) seems to be the pivot point in which Turner moves from a distrustful but subservient pawn into an outright leader of rebellion. Though this certainly is an understandable motivation, Parker leans too heavily on this angle, making Turner into a fusion of male pride and vigilante rage triggered by the rape and beating of women. In a way, The Birth of a Nation is less about the nameless slaves suffering under the hand of an unspeakable evil, but more about the angelic heroism of Nat Turner, and by extension, a glorification of Parker's own ego.
Every once in a while, Parker lands on some powerful images--closeups on the solemn faces of African-Americans witnessing lynchings, a slave owner ruthlessly forcing a man to eat by hammering out his clenched teeth--but most of the time, the filmmaking is much too sleek to feel like anything more than a safe product for mainstream consumption. There's a single-mindedness here; in both approach to its subject as well as the technical aspects, that is more often distracting than emotionally wrought. Parker frames everything as if he's making a poetic greeting card version of Turner's story; a glowing candle illuminating the bedroom before a lovemaking session, a starkly lit cross hanging above the writhing body of a slave owner, a laughable vision of an angel with fake-looking wings bathed in glorious light glimpsed by Turner as he stares up into the sky.
Such affectations are typical of a first time director swinging for the fences, but more crucially, Parker lacks the kind of go-for-broke daring that could have made his film feel messy and alive. The historical records, in terms of the violence wrought by the rebelling slaves, is largely kept off-screen, and by omitting the brutality of the murders, the film feels like its being dishonest with its audience. Likewise, by shying away from the contradictory nature of his lead character, Parker does a disservice to Turner and in a sense, makes The Birth of a Nation feel tidy and streamlined.
Perhaps the task Parker set out for himself was impossible; a depiction of our country's vile bigotry and hatred funneled through a rabble-rousing revenge epic, but he didn't do himself any favors by seeking advice from Mel Gibson about how to stage the final confrontation. Like Gibson, Parker renders the fury of the male savior as it's primary signifier; gutting the global effects of slavery and it's economical stranglehold into a flat narrative of one man's furious zeal towards injustice. By glorifying Turner to such a simplistic degree, he turns the man into a kind of superhero saint instead of the flawed, fully dimensional human being worthy of the history books.