“The Birth of a Nation” tells the real-life story of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion. Nate Parker directs (in his debut), co-writes, produces and stars as Turner, with Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King and Jackie Earle Haley in supporting roles.
This shares a title with D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, and that’s no accident. That film is famous for its impressive and revolutionary technical achievements and is subjectively good but objectively racist, depicting the KKK as heroes and black men (some as white men in blackface) as unintelligent. This 2016 film attempts to take the name and give it a new meaning for the 21st century, but despite the best intentions and valiant efforts from its cast, it never rises to its grand aspirations.
Comparing this to “12 Years a Slave” is somewhat lazy but I feel inevitable. And it isn’t simply because both are tales about the evils of slavery in America, but because both feature powerful performances and gorgeous cinematography, however are narratively lacking and feature heavy-handed direction.
Parker is the main character and his Nat Turner is an emotionally conflicted man. He respects his master and is strong in his faith, never wavering that despite being enslaved, God is looking out for him and his family. Parker has several scenes that display his range, going from angry to in tears at the drop of a hat. Annie Hammer plays his master and is a quiet man, and you get the feeling he resents slavery but recognizes its importance to the world he lives in. Hammer has the most arch of any character, as he begins to drown his sorrow in liquor and succumb to the evils of the system.
Subtlety is nowhere to be found here. Parker is a rookie director and this is an ambitious story to take on as a first time project, but he feels the need to make sure no implications are missed. From slow-motion stare-downs to imagery of red blood falling on white cotton, Parker doesn’t miss a chance to make sure you get every point he is trying to get at. It comes off as in-your-face and is almost insulting because he doesn’t think the audience would be intelligent enough to figure things out themselves.
The film also takes a while to find its footing. For almost an hour, nothing happens. We know the film is building towards Turner’s rebellion, so for the first hour to have his life he relatively “good” (his owner was a childhood friend and Turner travels around with him) we never feel the evils that will inevitably push Turner over the edge.
When we finally start to see the true horrors of slavery, it is awful and graphic, and even they surely pale in comparison to the real life events. However nothing feels earned; we know Turner has seen awful things but even once he begins his rebellion, his actions still feel evil and horrific themselves, not fully justified.
Some historians call Turner a religious fanatic, not too different from modern day Islamic extremists, because he used his faith to justify slaughtering men, women and children. If it was Parker’s intentions to create a divide about Turner’s place in history then the film is to be commended; however I don’t think it was his goal to have Turner remembered as anything but a hero.
“The Birth of a Nation” features impressive performances, especially from Parker and Hammer, but it never builds up stakes and is heavy-handedly directed. It is an important story however I had a more engaging and interesting time reading up on Turner’s story afterwards than I did while watching the actual film. It’s an ambitious first project, with Parker as its strongest asset and biggest weakness; but it is his flaws make “Nation” hard to recommend.
Critics Rating: 5/10