Director: Nate Parker Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, Gabrielle Union Running Time: 120 mins
There’s a very interesting film to be made about the story of Nat Turner, the literate slave who lead a violent rebellion in the Deep South in 1831, killing over 60 people. This is not that film.
The Birth Of A Nation is never anything more than an okay movie aspiring to greatness. It is uneven in tone and pacing, overly simplistic in its point of view, and fairly ham-fisted in parts. There are moments that really hit home, but while the film is dealing with incredibly shocking and inherently powerful subject matter, it is never truly as powerful as it wants to be.
The opening scenes introduce us to Nat as a young boy, living with his tribe before being sold into slavery. It is here the film introduces an odd “chosen one” narrative, with Nat being earmarked for greatness by his tribe’s elders thanks to an unusual birth mark. We’re told Nat is special; he will do great things. This unnecessary plot point runs through the film, giving it more of a clichéd origin-story feel than that of a film about a real live, complex person.
It is a contrivance that is accompanied by many other cringe-worthy moments such as first-person visions of angels, deathbed promises, and singularly cartoonish villains. When one character drags themselves wounded and bleeding across the floor, for no other reason than to have them die framed perfectly against a stained glass window, it feels like the perfect metaphor for the film itself – not likely to go far but still desperate to impress.
After being sold into slavery, Nat’s intelligence is recognized and he is taught how to read the Bible. Through preaching to his fellow slaves he earns a certain level of respect from his master Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer). When Turner falls on hard times he accepts an offer from neighbouring farms to have Nat preach to their workers. The hope is that Nat (played with a fiery passion by director Nate Parker) can quell the air of growing discontent that has been effecting productivity across the region. However as Nat is brought on a veritable tour of horrors, witnessing the torture and humiliation of his fellow slaves, he begins to formulate other ideas on how to use his newfound position of power.
The real life story of Nat Turner is a controversial one in American history – Some believe him to be a hero, others question his methods, believing him to be a terrorist (a term Turner himself apparently agreed with). Director and star Nate Parker comes down very strongly on the side of Nat the hero, leaving very little room for interpretation. Parker does this to serve his own ends, pushing his agenda rather than letting the story speak for itself. From a moral point of view there should be a lot more to the telling of this story than painting the overly simplistic image of a pseudo Christ-like hero figure.
With Turner coming across like more of an archetype than a fully fleshed out human being, his turn from book smart preacher to vengeful and murderous leader of the rebellion is surprisingly sudden. It feels unearned in anything more than a superficial way. We are asked to just take the leap and fill in the blanks ourselves. The characters around him are all sketched equally as thinly. We have the wise grandmother, the supportive mother, the vulnerable love interest, and the firm but friendly (until he isn’t) master. Like Turner many of them go straight from A to C in their development, skipping B entirely.
Even the formation of Turner’s slave army is skimmed over. One night they’re just there. The story puts in the initial groundwork of showing his connection with these other slave groups through his preaching. Braveheart-esque speechifying aside, how he eventually managed to communicate with them directly though and turn them to his cause is left purely to our imaginations. Not that it’s hard to conceive, but it’s something that would have undoubtedly lent itself to drama and intrigue within the narrative. Again this is just one of many moments where the film asks us to fill in the blanks while it forges ahead, in an effort to beat us over the head with its message.
What’s worse is that the film rushes its ending. After so much build-up, Parker skims over the details of the uprising itself – an event that should be this story’s defining moment. It becomes clear Turner wants to avoid the complexities and the ugly truth of the event, picking and choosing the moments that fit his agenda. In the process he leaves out many key details regarding the levels of Nat’s army’s brutality, such as their indiscriminate slaughter of women and children.
Interestingly, the title The Birth Of A Nation serves as a repudiation of the 1915 film of the same name – a controversial classic that, while technically brilliant, is extremely and unapologetically racist. One can’t help but feel Parker’s admittedly admirable desire to have his film serve as an angry counterpoint blinded him to the nuances and truth of the story he was telling. It’s also a shame that he can’t match the technical achievement of his film’s namesake.
On the subject of influences and technical achievement, one thing is certain – The Birth Of A Nation is no 12 Years A Slave. The comparison was inevitable given the subject matter, but seeing the film really drives this home. Parker so desperately wants The Birth Of A Nation to be seen in the same league as Steve McQueen’s opus – there are long artful scenic shots, a damsel in distress (played by a promising young actress), and genuinely affecting moments of unflinching cruelty and violence.
When taken as a whole however The Birth Of A Nation can’t help but feel like an amateur remake of a far superior film. A timely rallying cry, and a potentially fascinating exploration of an imperfect icon, that unfortunately fails to hit the mark.(2 / 5)