Film: The Birth of a Nation
Director: Nate Parker
Writers: Nate Parker (story and screenplay) and Jean McGianni (story)
Primary Cast: Nate Parker, Aja Naomi King, Armie Hammer, Esther Scott, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, Colman Domingo, Tony Espinosa, Roger Guenveur Smith, Gabrielle Union, Chiké Okonkwo, Mark Boone Junior, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Kai Norris, Jason Stuart
US Release Date: 7 October 2016
With its title alone, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation declares that it aims to reclaim that which has been stolen. With just its name, the film calls out the racism of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, declaring that there is another version of history that deserves the attention of viewers. In positioning itself in opposition to Griffith, The Birth of a Nation also calls attention to the racist past not only of America, but of Hollywood filmmaking. By choosing such a loaded title, Parker promises a new and radical film.
Too bad that’s not what he actually made.
The Birth of a Nation follows Nat Turner (Parker), who led a rebellion of slaves in Virginia in 1831. When the film opens, Nat is but a boy (Espinosa), but he is no ordinary child. Nat is marked physically, and when his mother (Ellis) takes him to a group of black elders, they declare that he is destined for something great.
That greatness begins with Nat’s ability to read, which is briefly nourished by the lady of the plantation (Miller), although it doesn’t keep Nat from picking cotton in the fields. Throughout his life, Nat spends a great deal of time reading and preaching the word of God. He also has strange visions, which seem to be leading him to some important future.
When Nat’s alcoholic master (Hammer) learns that he can make money by having Nat preach the gospel of subservience to slaves all over the county, he does just that. As Nat travels to other plantations, he is forced to witness just how terrible slave-owners can be. And by the time tragedy strikes closer to home, Nat is finally ready to turn on Ramses and lead his people out of Egypt white people and liberate his brothers.
There’s no question that Turner is meant to resemble figures from the Bible. Death by hanging aside, The Birth of a Nation’s narrative structure is eerily similar to The Prince of Egypt (yes, the animated musical). Like Moses, young Nat spends time living among the oppressors. When Turner turns on his master Samuel, he’s also turning on someone he played with as a child (though The Birth of a Nation lacks the emotional skill to capitalize on this point). Parker also makes sure to include a whipping scene so obvious in its aims that anyone who fails to see the crucifixion must be blind. The same goes for another scene in which Turner walks through a crowd of frenzied whites on his way to the gallows. When it comes to painting Turner as black Moses and Christ all at once, The Birth of a Nation is far from subtle. Comparing Turner to the heroes of the same scripture that slave-owners use to justify their monstrous behavior has the potential to be wonderfully subversive. But the execution here is too heavy-handed, and the fact that it’s surrounded by clumsy, ineffective, and rather ordinary storytelling certainly doesn’t help.
Parker’s passion project took years to get made, and the writer/director/actor’s dedication to Turner’s story is never in question. What is however, is his ability to tell that story in an effective manner. Too many of Parker’s best ideas don’t have enough of an impact on the film’s narrative. The film starts slow, and it stays slow until about three quarters of the way in, and it never burns hot enough to live up to the promise of its name. Parker also fails to properly develop any of his characters, and Turner is the only figure in the film who’s given anything that might resemble depth. As a result, what should have been a transformative, crushing, and soul-stirring film somehow manages to feel flat for the majority of its running time. Thus, The Birth of a Nation falls into a common biopic trap in that tries to cover too much temporal ground without presenting enough compelling characters and well-presented ideas.
For a film that clearly wants to be innovative, The Birth of a Nation also spends a good deal of time rehashing old ground and making decisions that don’t support its larger aims. Why include the sympathetic white characters? Why not allow Turner’s wife to be a more dynamic figure? Why include a whipping scene so late, it feels ham-fisted into the narrative? Why dedicate so little energy to fleshing out the film’s hero? There are some truly striking scenes in the film—including much of Turner’s rebellion—but they are weighed down its more uninspired moments.
The acting in the film is a bit hit-and-miss. The only performers asked to do much are Parker and King (who plays Turner’s wife); they each do just fine, but neither would seem to warrant the $17.5 million that Fox Searchlight spent on the film.
It isn’t all bad though. The Birth of a Nation clearly wants to start a conversation, and even if it doesn’t make its own case as clearly or as strongly as it should, that conversation is still worth having. Despite any missteps, Parker’s film remains an effective reminder that history and cinema alike are all too often written by the victors and that, in this country at least, racism underpins both. Though it’s not executed especially well, the tale at the heart of the film is dark, morally complex, and incredibly relevant, and it will affect people regardless any cinematic weaknesses.
On a related note, The Birth of the Nation is often at its best when it’s at its most brutal. The violence in the film (and there is violence) is well-executed. It isn’t gratuitous or cartoonish, and it makes viewing the film a much more visceral experience than it would be otherwise.
The film’s realistic sets are also impressive, especially given its modest budget. The Birth of a Nation was shot entirely in Savannah; and with the exception of some cheap-looking vision scenes, most of the film looks quite good.
By now, just about anyone who pays attention to film has heard about the enthusiastic standing ovation that The Birth of a Nation received at Sundance. Many—myself included—initially assumed that such passionate praise might indicate some truly groundbreaking work on behalf of the filmmakers. How foolish we were. I have my own assumptions as to why the Sundance audience reacted as positively as they did to what is, unfortunately, an unspectacular movie, but I’ll keep them to myself. For now, I’ll simply say this: The Birth of a Nation has some laudable aims, but the film itself doesn’t accomplish much in the end.
Just about anyone who pays attention to cinema has also heard about the swirling shit-storm of controversy surrounding Nate Parker and his alleged rape of a Penn State student in 1999. The details of that case are all over the internet, so I won’t list them here. That said, I will admit that the possibility that Parker committed a sexual assault was enough for me to cross The Birth of a Nation off my watchlist weeks ago. I also know that there are those who do not understand why Parker’s past should influence how one regards the film—especially since it was made by a lot of people, nearly all of whom are not Nate Parker.
I had no plans to spend money on a ticket to Parker’s film, and I certainly don’t fault anyone who refuses to watch it on ethical grounds. But I also recently found myself in a situation where attending a (free) preview screening of the film was part of my job. So I ended up seeing The Birth of Nation after all. Now that I have, I can confidently say that anyone thinking about skipping the film, won’t be missing much if they do.
If The Birth of a Nation gets overlooked come Oscar season, it’s inevitable that some will point to Parker’s sexual assault allegations and claim that the Academy got cold feet. Regardless of whether such people would be correct, the truth is that this film wouldn’t deserve such accolades even if Parker were a saint. It’s simply not that good.
Until Next Time
From the looks of things, October is going to be a complete disaster of a month for me, so forgive me if posts are a little sparse. And wish me luck! Grad school is a strange, temperamental beast if I ever saw one.
As you may have noticed, I’ve been missing a lot of new movies since I moved to LA. This will probably continue as long as I am in school. For the time being, what I watch is determined almost exclusively by class syllabi and the occasional on-campus screening. It is what it is. That said, I should be watching both The Girl on the Train and The Accountant later this week, whatever that’s worth.
Also, I’ve received several positive comments on my last post (in which I described some of the books I’ve been reading in school). As a result, I’ll definitely try to do another post like that at the end of the semester, and I’ll try to keep doing them until I get my degree (don’t ask me what happens after that. I have no idea).