Most people are at least tangentially aware of the 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation, an epic film intended to show the founding of the Klu Klux Klan (KKK). Of course, it was slanted to make KKK look like a noble group and it was less than positive in its portrayal of black people. Director Nate Parker decided to utilize the name of this racist propaganda film and turn on its head by making it about a slave rebellion that occurred in the 1830s. The Birth of a Nation is the cinematic equivalent of an anguished scream, but just like a hysterical person, it is jumbled and unfocused.
The film is based on a real live slave by the name of Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a slave who led a rebellion against his owners in Virginia. Some of his early childhood is portrayed but the majority of the narrative follows adult Turner. He is a preacher of sorts and his job (other than working in the field) is to travel from plantation to plantation to preach the word of God to other slaves. Over time, the horrors of planation life begin to get to him and a tragic event involving his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) becomes a catalyst for him to try to bring about some change. Religion plays a huge part in the film and I found that some of ideas presented contradicted each other. On the one hand, Turner says that the slavers have essentially been cherry-picking verses from the Bible to justify owning slaves, but later on he does the same thing to justify committing violent acts. There is a lot of this cognitive dissonance strewn about the film and it undermines what the movie is trying to say.
While Parker does an admirable job as Turner, the rest of the characters do not fare as well. All of the white characters are depicted as one dimensional evil beings that have zero redeemable qualities. I know why Turner chose this route, as it makes the third act of the film easier to stomach for the audience, but I find that kind of manipulation to be intellectually dishonest. I’m not saying that the film needed a “white hero” to make people feel comfortable, but these characters just don’t feel like living, breathing people. In fact, most of the characters are brushed aside for more Turner screen time and it cheapens the pain and suffering that they go through. Turner’s character arc has more than a couple similarities to Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart (1995) even down to the director playing the main character of the film. This isn’t really a negative towards the film, just an observation.
There are fleeting moments where The Birth of a Nation transcends and manages to evoke real beauty and horror. Turner occasionally has prophetic dreams with surreal and symbolic imagery but they are few and far between. It’s too bad because those were the most original scenes in the film and incredibly effective. For the most part the cinematography is perfunctory but there are a few sequences (mostly towards the end) that are visually striking and well done. It feels like Parker got too caught up with what he was trying to say which interfered with how he was trying to say it. The subject and story is important and needs to be examined, but Parker doesn’t really add anything new to the conversation. He pulls his punches too much and doesn’t let things breathe and play out naturally.
The Birth of a Nation is not unlike the birth of a baby—it’s bloody, messy, chaotic and full of screaming and pain. Though some of it is provocative and intriguing, the direction of the film seems like it could have used some extra polish. I do see some promise though, and since this is Nate Parker’s debut film, he may have a chance to redeem himself with his next feature.
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