There is boldness and defiance written into the DNA of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, beginning with the pointed abduction of the title from D.W. Griffith’s century-old epic that is equal parts groundbreaking and despicable. The new film is about Nat Turner (played by Parker), a Virginia slave who led an 1831 rebellion that was the bloodiest, most successful insurrection against the oppressing Southern gentry until the U.S. Civil War. Ultimately short-lived — it lasted approximately forty-eight hours — the rebellion left over fifty whites dead before it was over. A roughly equal number of enslaved blacks were arrested and executed for the rebellion, with hundreds more murdered in acts of vicious and largely indiscriminate retribution.
The Birth of a Nation is the definition of a passion project. Parker is the director, writer, producer, and star (Jean McGianni Celestin shares a story credit). He worked on the screenplay as early as 2009, and at one point told his agents that he’d accept no further acting work until he got Nat Turner’s story made. Through its early passages, in particular, Parker’s film radiates the commanding certainty implied by its genesis.
In many respects, the film adheres to the rules of a conventional biopic, portraying the life of Nat Turner from his boyhood to his ugly death. That’s at odds with the currently prevailing methodology of focusing in on a more narrow but highly telling passage of a figure’s biography. All the narrative novelty required comes from the fetid ecosystem of U.S. slavery, still woefully under-depicted in cinema given the sizable and lingering stain it has left on the nation’s being. Even the bracing memory of the scalding, powerful 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, hasn’t offered immunizing strength against seeing the cruelty of slavery on screen. Parker may not reach the feverish, agonizing verisimilitude achieved by McQueen, but he does capture the appalling casualness of the crime against humanity. In his rendering of the various overlapping communities, Parker shows how the inertia of familiarity — set by power structures determined to preserve the monstrous injustice — was its own form of repression.There is faux safety and tiny, haunting tremors of happiness within the slave community, existing in quantities just large enough to engender a fear that it too can be stripped away if the basic decency of freedom and dignity is sought.
In his script and direction, Parker works this bitter notion, but it is his acting that makes the thesis charged. He signals the growing turmoil within Nat Turner as his uncommon gift for preaching God’s word takes him beyond the borders of the property where he is forcibly held, rented out by his enslaver (Armie Hammer, very good in depicting weakness masquerading as strength) to other local plantations, where Turner is put before fellow slaves to use religion as a taming cudgel. Given a chance to see the brutality with freshened eyes, Turner grows to realize that standing still in this existence is no existence at all, a conclusion only fortified when his wife, Cherry (the riveting Aja Naomi King), is violently assaulted by a band of slave hunters (the leader of which is played by Jackie Earle Haley, now celebrating ten years as the go-to for repugnant characters).
When Nat Turner finds his inner fortitude for fearless challenge, the movie loses some of its own. The final lap to the slave rebellion feels rushed, unfocused. The film doesn’t build and crescendo so much as it accidentally stumbles through a set entrance well ahead of its cue and tries to make up for the error with stammering bluster. It also falters by employing narrative tropes, such as the circling back of a chief villain, that are part of the lesson plan in Screenwriting 101 before they are witheringly untaught in Screenwriting 102. Parker, it seems, missed some sessions of the latter class.
Surely Parker can’t be faulted too much for succumbing to an instinct to turn The Birth of a Nation into a sort of Braveheart of American slavery. There’s certainly more morality to that approach than Quentin Tarantino’s leering pivot into base revenge fantasy in Django Unchained. Still, Parker’s path has its own hindering divots. The Birth of a Nation might begin as a sharp, heartfelt movie about a man, but it ends as a straining attempt at iconography. Given the relative lack of historical attention paid to the courageous insurgency of Nat Turner, it’s a noble creative choice, but it’s also, sadly, not a compelling one.