Powerful, but at times heavy-handed, the Birth of a Nation succumbs to its flaws
Overshadowed by personal controversy, director Nate Parker’s new film is still a valiant effort
The Birth of a Nation
Directed by Nate Parker
Starring Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller
The Birth of a Nation depicts the story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a Bible-educated slave who comes to believe that he is a messenger of God, destined to lead his fellow slaves in a rebellion for freedom. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that the rebellion failed.
This wide-screen depiction of this historical figure’s life is a slow and sprawling tale that relies heavily on dramatic imagery to conjure up an impression of grandeur and spirituality. Many scenes simultaneously induced a gasp of awe and a sigh of exasperation. Awe, for the intriguing double meanings in the oft-cited Biblical verses and the most glorious shots of cotton fields that you will ever see — but exasperation, for a consistent trend of being rather too on the nose. The film holds nothing back in exploiting your heartstrings and your conscience, shoving violence and heinous injustices in your face.
The opening scene, which I initially found random and puzzling, encompassed and set the stage for the feel of the rest of the film. In a short prologue sequence, a young boy is declared to be some sort of chosen one by a sage leader in a nighttime, fire-lit ceremony because he has a row of three bumps on his chest. It’s evident that the young boy is Nat Turner, but the significance of the scene isn’t clear.
At the same time, the chanting and the flames are entrancing enough that I didn’t find myself particularly disgruntled. This sort of inconsistency in quality is itself quite consistent throughout the movie.
Looming over the entire movie is the shadow of the real-world controversy over director Nate Parker’s alleged 1999 rape of a classmate. I was, and still am, thoroughly convinced that by today’s standards he would have been found guilty; I say this only to explain how my convictions focused my attention on troubling themes that may otherwise have slipped my notice.
For all the emphasis placed on Nat Turner’s relationship with Cherry (Aja Naomi King) being a driving influence in his decision to rebel, Cherry has little self-determination in the movie. She spends most of her screentime as a victim or being saved by Nat — or both.
She’s a beloved symbol to be protected, revered, and revenged, but not to be informed or consulted. On the eve of the rebellion, a fellow slave warns Nat that should he lead a killing of slave owners, vengeance would fall upon those close to him, namely Cherry, their daughter, and Nat’s mother. Nat’s response? “If it’s God’s will.”
Without warning them, Nat presumed to decide their fates on their behalf.
The large majority of the run-time is spent on build-up toward the rebellion for which Nat Turner is remembered in history books, which was appropriate, given the brevity of the rebellion itself.
Throughout his life Nat Turner is “special.” His mistress recognizes a rare talent in him as a young boy and teaches him to read the Bible. He eventually memorizes it and preaches it frequently to his fellow slaves. By the time he becomes an adult, now owned by his mistress’s son Sam Turner, Nat is famous enough for his Biblical fluency that other slave owners are willing to pay Sam to have Nat preach to their own restless slaves. Sam, drowning in debt, agrees.
In the beginning, Nat willingly recites Bible verses that justify slavery in his sermons. The most personally astonishing was 1 Peter 2:18 — “Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.”
For the most part, Sam is a “good and considerate” master, and Nat is every inch the obedient slave. But over the years, he witnesses the violent actions of “those who are harsh” against fellow slaves, against his family, and eventually against himself; it is then that he comes to realize that he has interpreted the Bible all wrong. It is mostly for those actions, including but not limited to forced teeth-pulling, knee-breaking, whipping, and rape, that the movie is R-rated.
For every gory scene of cruelty that forces your eyes shut, however, there is a scene of sublime beauty that widens them. There are the aforementioned shots of cotton fields, ironically lit in golden, elysian light; there is the perfect, candle-lit nuptial night shared by Nat and his wife; and there is an eerie, stunningly filmed tapestry of Nat Turner’s black silhouette on a horse in the dead of night, with white moonlight suffusing the forest backdrop. For these alone, it was worth the trip to the movie theater.
The sublimity of the visual imagery couldn’t completely distract from how frustratingly heavy-handed the directing could be. By the time Nat Turner embraces his perceived destiny as a new messiah, the frequency of heavenly motifs had increased to the point where I couldn’t help but mentally quip “Hi, Jesus!” in scenes where, for example, Nat is whipped while tied to a cross.
The most unforgivablely overt imagery, however, has to be Nat’s recurring visions of a black woman, who seemed to be his wife, dressed as an angel and floating in a white netherworld of holiness. More than anything, it looked startlingly fake in a movie otherwise given to extreme realism: the angel’s wings looked like they were bought from Party City.
The Birth of a Nation is a testament to the prodigious skill of all parties involved in its making, but there are many noticeable flaws that prevent me from proclaiming it a masterpiece. At any rate, as I watched Nat Turner take his stand at the head of a determined, if ragtag, group and yell “Rebel!” to the heavens, all I could think of was “For Frodo!” and how Aragorn did it better.