By Anthony Miglieri
Like racism itself, almost every aspect of The Birth of a Nation is murky. Of course there is the offscreen controversy involving former allegations against its filmmaker Nate Parker, as well as the picture’s immediate pertinence to the racially charged violence that has been plastered across the nation’s media in recent months. Even setting aside the elements outside of the film though, The Birth of a Nation is confusing and conflicted, which indeed matches the senseless hatred of racism; however, these qualities also hinder the film from achieving the greatness it reaches for.
The Birth of a Nation is essentially a biopic on Nat Turner, an enslaved African American who led a slave revolt in 1831 Virginia. First-time writer/director Nate Parker takes what is known about Nat Turner and fashions a narrative around his life, shaping and filling in where factual details are scarce. Consequently, not everything in this movie may be accurate, but Parker’s ultimate goals are feeling and meaning rather than historical perfection. The filmmaker focuses mostly on Turner’s experience as a preacher for the slaves on his plantation, using the man’s faith as a way to channel the film’s sentiments, which, fittingly, are none too pleased.
Nate Turner himself portrays Nat Parker, and his performance is one of two primary gears: subtlety and fiery passion; Parker’s Turner often wears a visage of weary, contemplative observance until he explodes into a crackling sermon. However, in the depiction of this emotional dichotomy lies one of the main problems with The Birth of a Nation: it has the quietness and the explosions, yet it struggles to effectively segue between the two. Also contributing to this tonal imbalance is the structure of the narrative, which is fairly conventional. Parker moves deliberately from scene to scene with threads including his tender relationship with his wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), and his plantation’s initially relatively gracious (at least for a slave owner) slave owner (Armie Hammer), until the highly anticipated revolt erupts.
What gives me pause is how the revolt erupts so suddenly. It’s as if director Turner is simply biding his time during the first two thirds of The Birth of a Nation, dutifully building up to what he believes to be the real substance: the climax. That’s not to say that the pre-revolt sequences are bad, but they are a bit unassuming and monotonous, especially when compared to recent, more original slave tales on film like 12 Years a Slave (2013) and Django Unchained (2012). The freshest quality of this film is its ethereal, often Malickesque visual style, which blends gliding camerawork and mystical, symbolic imagery into the film’s fabric. The ambitious moments of magical realism range from quietly touching to heavy-handed, but overall, they do add a welcome touch of idiosyncrasy.
As would be reasonably expected from a film purporting to depict a slave rebellion, The Birth of a Nation is extremely brutal, mixing scenes of slaves being whipped and taken advantage of with sequences of slave owners and their families being brutally hacked to death. All of the violence is portrayed with the appropriate graphicness, and yet, as I mentioned before, since the rising action is somewhat uneven and muddy, the atrocities do lose some of their punch when they arrive. At times, Nat Turner is framed as a hero, yet his heroics are undercut by the lopsidedness in the storytelling. The mourning of enslaved and/or murdered African Americans is as necessary a sentiment as any in the context of the United States’ history, but something about how Parker expresses his stance on the violence with this narrative is confusing and off-putting.
Despite its shortcomings, The Birth of a Nation is an accomplished piece of craft, mainly because of its performances, visuals, and the emphaticness of its message. In this regard, Turner, King, Hammer, cinematographer Elliot Davis, and other performers are certainly worthy of praise. As for the message: the stance that racial discrimination is bad and needs to be stopped is an easily understandable and agreeable one (for most enlightened people in contemporary society at least). Parker’s debut feature certainly hammers this home, arguing that it is up to everyone to fulfill Turner’s struggle for equality. If only the film had made this assertion in a more original and narratively taut way, it could have been great. As it is, The Birth of a Nation plays as a visually arresting and reasonably interesting depiction of the inherently vital story of Nat Turner, but probably won’t shake the nation of today like it seems to intend to do.