'The Birth Of A Nation': A Flawed Portrayal Of An Important Story
In an early sequence in The Birth of a Nation, a historical epic depicting the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in 1831, the future revolutionary as an adolescent views a familiar moment—a runaway slave captured by two white men in the dark of night. Dialogue about his due punishment, complimented with racial epithets, will be familiar to anyone who has seen Roots, 12 Years A Slave, or any number of films or TV shows depicting this era. But when the white man puts a rifle to the slave's head, he grabs it away and instead shoots his pursuers—an equally familiar image to those familiar with action movies, but one rarely seen in this context.
Director Nate Parker's film deals in clichéd images: scenes ripped from other films that confirm our perception of the slavery and the American South (even in choosing a title so immediately associated with the history of cinematic white oppression). In doing so, his hope is to clash such images and recontextualize them. The Birth of a Nation aims for mass appeal by claiming such a familiar language in its story with the goal to push a less considered image of black resistance. It's Parker's smartest gambit, but also his most frustrating limitation. The story is simple—rise up and fight against the oppression—but the details and specifics of Turner's life, and thus what makes his story unique, becomes lost in broad gestures.
Perhaps working against expectations, Parker's film focuses little on the rebellion, taking up only 15 minutes near the end of the film. Birth instead follows Turner's rise as an inspiring leader through his literacy and careful deployment of the language of religion. Under the guise of his ambivalently benevolent owner, a slack-jawed and awkwardly emphatic Armie Hammer, Turner (played by Parker) initially travels from plantation to plantation to preach the word of the Lord as justification for slavery's horrors. As Turner views the horrors—lynching, whipping, beating, rape—his choice in Biblical language (and thus aims to his fellow African Americans) change.
However, the film does little to create the psychological evolution in Turner's mind. The film's rhythmic structure oscillates between these sequences of horror and romantic ones with Turner's eventual wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King). Their romance does little to explain either Nat or Cherry, simply working as a set-up for certain transgressions to occur that inspire Nat to finally take up arms. Parker is an amicable actor, but he has yet to develop a gradation of emotion between his affability and his inspiring public speaking. His speeches, often presented in low-angle medium shots, feel performed for the camera instead of fellow slaves. These sequences do however provide the yin-and-yang of the Bible's use within communities, as both the oppressors and the oppressed have applied it towards political justification.
Most strangely, The Birth of a Nation presents violence in truly contradictory terms. The early scenes of Turner's rebellion recall Jack Nicholson roaming the empty mansion in The Shining, with all the gory details aestheticized in high expressionism. Parker makes the ugliness of such an act feel unsettlingly beautiful—the red blood shimmers under Elliot Davis' cinematography while the low drums of Henry Jackman's score beat along. The film does not seem to take pleasure in the violence (Django Unchained) nor luxuriate in virtuosity (12 Years), but it seems to paint Turner and his fellow slaves almost as monsters stalking in the night. Given that the film clearly valorizes Turner, building his big battle as his most grand gesture (though little is done to make it feel like a grandiose moment), one wonders what Parker had in mind in how audiences should react to seeing such methodic violence made even more frightening.
It's a problem that extends through the film, where often shots and sequences rarely feel part of a whole, rammed against each other without drawing out nothing more than an occasional inspiring note. The film frames moments with an eye for a particular beauty instead of a particular meaning (you'll find much of the film soon appearing on the #OnePerfectShots Twitter feed). Parker, whose credits to this date have mostly been in Hollywood films, uses the vocabulary he knows best, but rarely grasps its cohesiveness. Like the opening sequence, much of The Birth of a Nation feels radical simply by appropriating images we've seen before and awakening the senses with sudden disruptions. However, there's nothing to connect it all together, lacking the rhythmic beauty that made a film like Jonathan Demme's Beloved, the often misjudged adaptation of Toni Morrison's novel, speak to the human weight and complexities of both its era and a contemporary one.
In The Birth of a Nation, Parker depicts the story of Nat Turner in a populist, approachable manner. But all he manages to do is tell it. Parker so clearly wants his film to matter, but what it lacks is a perspective on why.
Editor's note: This review originally stated that Nat Turner's uprising took place at Harper's Ferry. That was John Brown raid. We regret the error.
The Birth of a Nation opens everywhere on Friday.
Peter Labuza is a freelance film critic, whose work has appeared in Variety, Sight & Sound, and The A.V. Club. Follow him on Twitter.