Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is a remarkable piece of cinema, especially from a first-timer. Parker controls this entire endeavor as writer, director, producer, and also stars as the slave Nat Turner. This is a powerful but sad film, though there is a kernel of hope at its center that Parker tries to work from. Based on a the real-life slave revolt led by Nat Turner in the early 1830s, the film offers incredible acting, but suffers slightly from narrative issues and some muddled thematic material. Of course, Parker takes some poetic license with the actual history, and while some of these help the story, others are more egregious and unnecessary. The most definitive aspect of the film is its profound spirituality, which Parker leans heavily on for dramatic justification of Turner’s rebellion, and also as the source of his leadership. Indeed, this is a film about not only racial injustice, but spiritual deliverance. Parker is sometimes lost with exactly where to focus the rebellious spirit, but these small mistakes cannot mar the overall poignancy of his message.
The film is based on the real historical account of Nat Turner’s slave revolt, which took place in August of 1831. Though the majority of the film shows Turner as an adult, there are some sequences showcasing his formative experiences: seeing his father kill a slave catcher and then go on the run, being taught to read by his owner’s wife, and some prophetic mumbo-jumbo about how the three-dot birthmark on his chest augurs his role as a leader of men. The latter sequences stick out as forced artistry, and one of the biggest mistakes that Parker the director makes. They detract from the momentum of the narrative, and add precious little. Cut these scenes out and the film is better.
The majority of the story focuses on Nat the adult, when his master is Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer). Nat’s intellect is abundant, and his understanding of the gospel impressive for a man of any color. He meets his wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), picks cotton, and preaches to the other slaves on the Turner plantation. The local white preacher hatches a plot with Samuel to charge local plantation owners for Nat to deliver sermons to their slaves. These sermons are to glorify attributes like obedience, humility, and docility to the slaves, in an effort to make them easier for the slavers to handle. Along this circuit, Nat originally acquiesces to the letter, but eventually he can’t ignore the horrific treatment of his brethren. The inciting sequence is horrifying to behold, but Nat’s impassioned sermon answering it is the most rousing moment of the film.
As is often the case, Parker takes some dramatic license with regards to the actual story. Some, like Nat Turner actually being sold to different owners, are fairly innocuous and can be viewed as an effort to simplify the story. Another simply plays with time: Turner actually did see an eclipse of the sun and take it as a sign from God to begin his revolt, but in real-life the event happened months earlier, not days. I take no issues with things like these. Other choices are less inspired, or downright damaging to the film. Cherry is beaten and raped by a trio of slave catchers, and although this allows for some heart-wrenching performances from Parker and King, it is pure fabrication. It is almost used as additional justification for Turner’s rebellion, but when Cherry reminds him that those who live by the sword will perish by it, her devoutness stays his hand – at least momentarily.
Beautiful character moments like these are plentiful in The Birth of a Nation. There are astonishing performances throughout the film. Some may impugn Parker’s direction, but his control of acting talent is superb, himself included. Parker is great as Nat Turner, Armie Hammer portray his owner Samuel with restraint and nuance, and Aja Naomi King succeeds despite her meager screentime. Many ancillary parts effect the exact emotion you want: pity from the oppressed, revulsion at the actions of the barbaric oppressors, and the tragedy of the entire institution of slaver. The acting is powerful, and a decided strength of the film.
Even more than a call to revolution, The Birth of a Nation is a profoundly spiritual film. This is clear throughout, and there are plenty of biblical references and spiritual justifications for Turner’s slave rebellion. More importantly, while Turner’s spirituality is used as justification, the sequences of his preaching or having gospel preached at him are the most moving ones in the movie – particularly the fiery zeal during his first true rebellious outburst. Thematically, religion is front-and-center, as is the biblical assertion that men must be free and those who would sell them to slavery are tools of the Devil.
In a moment of profundity, Parker has Turner explain to his fellows slaves that “for every passage they use to justify our bondage, there is another demanding our freedom.” Drawing attention to the inherent contradictions in the word of God is quite heretical of Parker (and could remind quite easily of other cherry-picked biblical justifications of abhorrent behavior, from mixed-race marriages, to persecution of homosexuals). It is a shame that this thread is left dangling, because the inherent contradiction is the same which existed in the actual birth of our nation. Though the Declaration of Independence famously decrees as self-evident that, “all men are created equal”, it is patently clear that this political equality did not extend to black people (or women, for that matter). Parker stops short of marrying these contradictions thematically, and it is a real shame. Instead, we get zealotry and violence, which ends up ringing a little too hollow for the gravity of the subject matter.
This isn’t to say that the abruptness of the conclusion is a problem, as I have read in other critiques. The revolt itself lasted only a couple of days. Portraying this quickness correctly is a great choice by Parker. It is powerful stuff to rise with this man and his brethren and be knocked back down so soon, as it would still be more than 30 years before the Civil War and even a slight semblance of justice was realized. Furthermore, the infamous despicable reaction by slavers and militiamen is set to Nina Simone singing Strange Fruit, and it is one of the more haunting sequences you’ll see in film – this year or any other.
Finally, obvious title is obvious: D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) is set over 30 years after the events that take place in Nate Parker’s film, but it is his clear intent not to answer Griffith’s film and its respective evils, but to appropriate and re-purpose its title. If Griffith can argue that the Klu Klux Klan was essential to protecting the interests of whites during Reconstruction, then surely Parker can argue that principled rebellion by blacks and violence directed towards oppressors can effect a birth of a new nation, one where injustice is abolished. Clearly, we aren’t there yet, but Parker intends his film as one salvo in the fight.
The Birth of a Nation was the darling of the Sundance Film Festival, and it isn’t hard to see why. As a first effort, it is certainly a strong one, and there is a wonderful collection of acting talent and performances here, chief among them Nate Parker as Nat Turner . The over-arching themes of justice and deliverance are championed, but they get a little muddied from time-to-time, especially with all the work Parker does to cast Turner as a kind of Jesus figure. As a film which challenges the virtuous to stand firm against the wicked and call for abolition of all forms of discrimination, The Birth of a Nation is a welcome rallying cry.