Reviewed by Lesley Coffin
To ignore, or keep issues surrounding the new film Birth of a Nation at the back of your mind while watching is a challenging task. Not only the scandal surrounding writer-director-star Nate Parker, but the larger aspects of the film which first brought the film attention last January. Initially the film benefited from the surrounding issues it could latch onto (OscarsSoWhite, BlackLivesMatter, police brutality, increasing racial tension), turning a work of art into a movement. To see it, to support, it felt like a socio-political act in support of important, necessary change. And then the film suffered when the creator’s past seemed to display the issues of misogyny, campus date rapes, and sexual assault suffered by women. To support or boycott seemed to draw a line in the sand between the issue one supported more.
I write all this as a means to acknowledge I still might not have fully let go of these conflicted feelings; the filter I watched the movie certainly existed. But I have tried to come to a reasonable conclusion about a film I’m deeply conflicted about still. The reason for telling the story of Nate Parker is important, adding him and the revolt back into the history of our country. And if that is the primary mission of Birth of a Nation, Parker and those behind the film have clearly accomplished this, although the film’s desire to present Parker as an obvious hero is troubling. Although the argument that Parker’s revolt was unjustifiable is equally questionable approach to this dark side of history, Turner is a far more complex figure than Parker seems to want to acknowledge. But while the story should be told, Parker’s artistic execution is questionable and at times, suffocates the larger impact of the film.
Birth of a Nation, a name of significant importance in the history of film and importance film can have on America’s cultural memory (well demonstrated in the recent The 13th), tells the story of Nat Turner, as played by Nate Parker. Turner had the all too rare benefit in the time of southern slavery to learn to read, thanks to his master’s wife Penelope Ann Miller. While eventually moved out of the master’s house and sent back into the fields Turner now preaches to his fellow slaves. He’s learned to read…but exclusively the bible. The issues of “education” and “religion”, and how they play a role in controlling people’s a compelling idea we’ve rarely seen in stories of American slavery. But these themes remain far too underdeveloped and are dismissed remarkably early.
When drought comes and money is tight, Nat Turner’s former friend from childhood Sam (Armie Hammer), is advised to “rent” Nat Turner to preach to fellow slaves in order to quiet discontent. Once again, an issue is opened Parker chooses to conveniently (lazily) not explore in a significant way. Like 12 Years a Slave, there is a difference between the cruel and benevolent slave owners in Birth of a Nation. Turner’s plantation owners are supposedly one of the good families (like Benedict Cumberbatch’s William Ford in 12 Years a Slave). Sam is supposedly a “good” slave owner, especially compared to the crueler slave owners who engage in physical and sexual torture. But here was the opportunity to show how insidious such an idea could be, the conflicting concept that there could be such a thing as a “good” slave owners when the very concept is inherently evil. The idea, explored and examined could have open the door for the revolt, because any form of slavery is so truly evil regardless of degrees, and approached the slave narrative from an original and more complex angle.
Instead, Sam must become like his fellow slave owners and be seduced to similar torture before Turner rebels, and Turner must bear witness to the horror of the most extreme violence. The depictions are horrific, powerful and will movie any audience. But it also overshadows the bigger issues at hand…that slavery is inherently evil. The fact that Nat and Sam had a friendship and were raised (brainwashed) to see their lives as normal was ripe for powerful storytelling, but instead Sam is turned into a characterization of evil, and Nat Turner a Prophet.
I mention the “friendship” between Sam and Nat because it’s the only relationship in the film which seems to have depth. For a film supposedly “about the horrors of slavery” the humanity of these slaves are undermined by Nate Parker’s singular focus on Turner. We barely even see him interacting with other slaves, only preaching at them. And considering he was raised in the house before being sent back to the fields, his different perspective remains unexplored. The women in the film are singularly depicted through the men. Gabrielle Union plays Esther, a slave on Turner’s plantation who marries a fellow slave, only to then be raped by a white man (a guest of the owner). But the information regarding this rape is told to the audience by a conversation between men, her husband is informed that she will be sent to the house. While depicting the rape may be unnecessary, to cut Esther’s perspective out so entirely is baffling. Union supposedly asked that her character have no words, to represent women who suffered sexual violence in silence; but Esther is not silenced in the film by this violent act against her…she’s silent throughout.
Aja Naomi King, who plays Turner’s wife Cherry, along with Hammer gives the best performance in the film, adding nuance where there isn’t that much on the page. But she quickly becomes a woman to represent Turner as “a real man”, the marital savior that will protect his women. There are very few times when her dialogue is not in reference to framing Nat Turner as a hero. And particularly in the last act her character is entirely sacrificed for Parker’s single minded desire to present Turner as hero. We see none of her personal suffering, whether as a fellow slave during the bloody revolt or as a loving wife devastated at the loss of her husband. There is one brief scene, well-acted, but with horrible dialogue.
As for Parker’s performance, while he brings plenty of conviction, it is severally lacking in depth. All actors desire great, complex roles, and Parker’s desire for such is as reasonable as any thespian’s. But his performance is so focused on playing the victim/savior, he loses touch with the emotional complexities of this character in his singular hands and takes the easy route, too often falling into the arena of Hollywood hero (a 90s version). Hero-worship in film is dangerous, as addressed in previous reviews of Sully and Snowden. To approach your subject as hero before seeing them as human can dangerously throw balance off because it doesn’t allow the audience to come to terms with their own feelings about the character.
While I do feel Park was misguided in casting himself in the role (a common mistake for actors taking on their first directing jobs), Parker clearly has talent behind the camera. He has a good eye, creating cinematic “beautiful” imagery without turning his film into something glossy. And he clearly understands how to handle shooting action (often difficult on small budgets). Individually, the film contains some of the most powerful scenes of the year, but cumulatively, the movie clearly lacks a certain precision. It is unevenly paced, the editing often feels choppy, and Parker simply goes overboard with elaborate mystical imagery in the film towards the end.
At its core, Birth of a Nation is not the masterpiece it was originally praised as when it premiered at Sundance. But the praise may have also been too great, an uncontrolled fire that needed to be tempered to view Birth of a Nation for what it is. It is a significant movie with powerful moments and ideas, but lacking in depth and deeply flawed in execution.
Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website lesleycoffin.com)