It’s very unfortunate to have something this damned after the making of director-writer-actor Nate Parker’s controversial 2016 directorial (but not acting) debut The Birth of a Nation and before I personally got a chance to see it (but not before its debut at Sundance), especially in consideration of Parker’s personal passion for this film. Because I don’t personally have a problem with Parker’s performance in itself, he plays determination and the pain of seeing his fellow black brothers and sisters suffer as well as anybody should. But in consideration of the way the film’s subject Nat Turner – a slave and reverend who in 1831 led a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia that led to a massacre to a possible total of 65 white people – is portrayed in the most holy unblemished light alike most other conventional biopics of American Heroes (and make no mistake, The Birth of a Nation is painfully conventional, but I will get to that) to the degree of being so much of a Christ parable you’d have to not know who Jesus is to miss it… well, I’m sorry but Nate Parker is not the right man to play a Christ figure. Whether or not his rape accusations have any merit (I will not be stating my feelings on the matter), it is impossible to ignore that baggage for this kind of role, especially when self-directed. I don’t think anybody is wrong or right to separate the art from the artist, but I can’t imagine anyone being able to see shots like a backlit Turner holding his arms out in a jail cell like a crucifix without the knowledge of Parker and co-story developer Jean Celestin’s rape charges in 2000 (which have been just as much the subject of controversy as the focus of this film) popping in the back of their mind.
Make no mistake on the matter either way, The Birth of a Nation is an important movie and a necessary one in this day and age.
We live in 2016. People are not only quick to shame Black Lives Matter, they’re outright calling them a “terrorist group” or “hate group” and claiming that the protests against systemic racism in America is too violent and unnecessary (or that systemic racism simply does not exist). When quiet protests like Colin Kaepernick’s kneel occur, they further shame them and tell them they have nothing to protest about, they should leave the country and so on. We need a movie like this that puts front-and-center a black man who knew that revolutions were not bloodless. That challenges that mindset in America that injustice should be taken laying down. That really deals with the ugliness of fighting oppression. Turner’s story is one that is perfect to put front and center for discussion on the state of race relations in this country.
Unfortunately, The Birth of a Nation is also frustratingly restrained and basically maps out as a beat-for-beat generic biopic on a man a lot more complicated than that. It begins with Parker as a child being told he is destined for greatness and being raised in parallel to his master’s son Sam Turner (Armie Hammer as an adult, with facial hair, costume, drunken aloofness, and even his home resembling Edwin Epps from 12 Years a Slave to an alarming degree), later to inherit him. It follows him learning to read on his own before being discovered by his master’s wife (Penelope Ann Miller), after which the family takes it upon themselves to develop Nat’s reading skills, namely the Bible given the patriarch’s profession as a Reverend. The manner of the Turners’ exploitation of Nat as a Reading Negro for their congregation leads to Nat’s adult life being sent around to different plantations to preach gospel to the slaves, specifically with the undertone to fear their masters as God. Behind Nat is the support and love of his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and Grandmother (Esther Scott), resilient under the lash of their oppressors and slowly Nat finds himself witnessing the abuses grow worse and worse from the rape of his wife and another fellow slave (one of them outright arranged by Sam), the hammering out of teeth and force-feeding, the brains of a runaway spilled on a roadway, and all sorts of vile atrocities perpetrated by the slave trade.
The crazy thing is that I actually thought it could have worked that to its advantage of Parker had some awareness of where he was going with this because I knew Turner’s story for the most part and expected a certain subversion. This movie was going more out of its way than any biopic this side of Sergeant York to portray its subject as unconflicted. And if The Birth of a Nation went the way I expected to use this method as a weapon, I would not have thought it was spotless – many decisions such as to interrupt the movie to suddenly give us a romantic comedy between Nat and his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) or the shockingly flighty and horribly mistoned score by Henry Jackman. Neither of those belong in a Nat Turner picture and they’re early points against the film, but for the most part, The Birth of a Nation starts off in an uncomfortably agreeable manner without undercutting the truth of slavery.
The closest thing it does – almost as a ticking clock to his anger rising enough to start the uprising – is that it had let Nat portrayed as witnessing these horrific acts at an uncomfortable distance suggesting that he’s in a relative place of privilege. We don’t see him antagonized by Sam or going through any punishments until later on, his reaction shots are usually shared with Sam himself (Sam being portrayed by Hammer with a very translucent sense of pantomimed fraternity towards Nat that turns uglier over the course of the movie). Nat as portrayed in the film by Parker’s performance feels for his fellow black men, but seems to think that white men can still be kind to him early on. Nat feels at ease early on to approach a white woman and hand her a doll her child dropped, he doesn’t hesitate to baptize a white man rejected by all other reverends, the film is absolutely disinterested in any character other than Nat in his bubble until it is burst violently by a revelation that he just another black man who is to be lashed and killed and that’s where the movie could have turned itself around and subverted itself.
When Nat turns to his rebellion, what we have here is the chance to really show the man we’ve come to love without any caveats indulge in unrestrained violence against white oppressors and massacring them for their actions as a symbol of wrath. We could have had a really sudden shift of perspective given and a real challenge to what we consider necessary or appropriate responses to a life witnessing horrors and being taken advantage of. We could have had scenes of the revolt involving casualties of women and children (something I think The Birth of a Nation could have gotten away with after several shots specifically showing children’s complicity in slavery).
You see, I like to think the namesake of The Birth of a Nation was chosen for a reason. In D.W. Griffith’s original 1915 film, the first half of it is spent making us adore the two families involved in the main conflict and the second half shows the Griffith’s uglier side in its championing of violence against black people and oppression and stating it as necessity (something that I’m sure many white audiences agreed with in 1915, but was controversial even during those years). If Parker’s film is to use that sort of style as a weapon, he would allow Turner’s actions to be visceral, alarming, and intense, shaking the audience to its core.
Not only does Parker’s Birth of a Nation pull back on the violence (sure, it gets gruesome, but cuts are rapid fast and moments are usually given low-lighting), it outright rushes through the revolt itself and is very quick to wrap itself up as a picture once Turner makes the first blow. I would not be surprised if the revolt took up less than a 1/8 of the runtime and its aftermath another 1/8, but I didn’t keep a stopwatch. It absolutely falls flat on itself and considering how it’s more earnest to show the vile response by the white community to massacre a huge amount of slaves uninvolved with the rebellion (the exact number is undetermined but 200 is the optimistic minimum) might give the wrong message to a more absent-minded viewer that fighting only makes things worse. That shouldn’t be what you walk away from The Birth of a Nation with.
The only possible way I could imagine the movie getting itself back on track is if it were 30 minutes longer and turned to passion play during Nat’s capture, something the film tried to hint at by portraying many of Nat’s angelic visions with the most recognizable artifice and self-granting gravitas. Put all of Nat Turner on trial and really force the audience to reckon with its fact, practically kick-starting the conversation on current race relations right there in the middle of the film. But Parker was apparently less interested in that than making a harsh, complicated film about violence as protest and the sword bringing righteousness. It’s just really eager to stop and leave.
The movie we have is as a result as muddled in its message as it is amateur in its craft. There are some very brilliant backlit shots and well-arranged compositions (I particularly think of Nat’s first kill), but it for the most part feels like a debut feature all the way. I wonder if Parker would have made a much more solid biopic for Nat Turner later on his career as well as being wiling to go full-throttle on dealing with the fact of Nat’s revolt, but then at the same time, I’m not sure he would have made the same generic biopic decisions that would have established a great launchpad for that subversion and 2016 is pretty much THE year that a movie dealing with the history behind black protest should be made. In the end, we can only deal with the film we have made now and while I think it’s a well-made picture especially relative to a debut, it’s tough to shake the feeling that it could have been so much more.