The Birth of a Nation is a powerful film. Some of its imagery is downright harrowing, to the point that it may force its audience to look away or walk out of the theater. The imagery centers on America’s greatest moral atrocity, one whose repercussions can still be felt today, which only adds to its ability to strike a raw nerve. The Birth of a Nation is also an uneven film. Director Nate Parker stumbles over plot points and characterizations, to the point where it is unclear how he feels about the premise beyond its clear line between good and evil. For every powerful image, there are clumsy shots that are gorgeous but cinematically hollow. The Birth of a Nation is more uneven than it is powerful, which is another way of saying that it is not a good film.
Southampton County is in southeastern Virginia, right on the North Carolina border, and it is where the slave Nat Turner spent all his life. The screenplay, also by Parker, introduces Nat as a boy. After an affecting prologue where a tribal leader suggests Nat will be a great man, there is an early pastoral sequence where Nat plays with a white boy, almost as if they are equals. This relationship is important to Nat, as is his relationship to Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller), the white matriarch who teaches Nat to read.
Nat is only given the Bible, which he devours, and he proves to be a charismatic preacher. Parker plays Nat as an adult, and Armie Hammer plays Samuel, the white boy from his youth. Samuel and Nat trek around the county, offering Nat’s services as a preacher to other slave owners, while Samuel collects the profit. The sadistic realities of slavery are finally too much for Nat, so he mounts a deadly rebellion against those who subjected him – and countless others – to inhuman bondage.
Parker stages many scenes so the barbarism of slavery always has an audience. No slave owner treats his property the same, so during the Samuel and Nat’s tour, they bear witness to horrible conditions, torture, and everything in between. The act of witnessing is important to the film: it is what causes Nat to believe that rebellion is the only answer, and witnessing also means that the seemingly “decent” white characters are not off the hook. Samuel sees the same thing Nat does, and his only recourse is to obliterate himself into an alcoholic stupor. These scenes are where The Birth of the Nation are the most effective, even if Parker’s instincts are not sharp. The dialogue and action creates enough nuance so the main characters should also respond in kind, yet the reactions are always broad, as if Parker cannot fathom horror except in the simplest terms.
Another important theme is how the film depicts women. Aja Naomi King plays Cheery, the slave that eventually becomes Nat’s wife. The female characters, including Elizabeth, are on the sidelines, acting as dutiful paragons of virtue while the men fight. Women only matter to the plot insofar that they are victims: there are two implied rapes in The Birth of the Nation – both of them happen off-camera – and while they lead toward affecting performances, the women are catalysts more than they are people – people who have just as much to lose. The film’s climax involves slaves killing white men, even if the actual rebellion was more brutal more than that, and Parker’s avoidance of these ugly details does a disservice to his subject. Nat felt his rebellion was righteous, in more ways than one, and the film’s blind spots mean Parker cannot put his audience into that mindset.
Through The Birth of a Nation, Parker posits Nat as a messianic figure. Parker even includes some surrealist imagery, like shots of an angel and an ear corn turning ruddy with blood. Nat believes his rebellion is part of God’s will – perhaps Parker does, too – yet the film uses this idea indulgently, not for theological inquiry. There are many scenes where Nat preaches, for example, except the content of his sermon is less important than the fiery rhetoric. This middling, aloof approach to Christianity is where The Birth of a Nation starts to lose its power. The film oversells Nat as a prophet, saint, messiah, whatever. By the time Parker’s outstretch his arms a second time, resembling Jesus’ crucifixion, the film veers toward grim parody. Mel Gibson’s overwrought imagery and brutal violence makes him Parker’s greatest influence. Gibson is a controversial filmmaker, but he is a natural talent, while Parker misses the mark more than he hits it.
It is impossible to think about The Birth of a Nation without thinking about Nate Parker and the 1999 rape charges against him. Everyone grapples with the separation of art and artist, and I’ve read compelling arguments why some simply refuse to see this film. It is easy for me to make the separation, in part because I’m a critic and in part because I have the experience of a white male. But while I was watching The Birth of Nation, I could not help but think about Parker’s rape charges, and that is because of Parker’s choices as a filmmaker.
This is a film where the director and star, either through narcissism or financial necessity, positions himself as a righteous moral savior. There is even an overwrought sequence where two melting candles serve as a metaphor for Nat and Cherry’s consummated marriage. Through beatification and feigned tastefulness, Parker’s secondary goal seems like a defense against his critics. This demeans Nat Turner’s story, and it demeans Parker’s cast and crew. The Birth of a Nation is worse than a bad film; it is an inessential one.