The Birth of a Nation
The Birth of a Nation
2016. Directed by Nate Parker.
The Birth of a Nation is a blood soaked poem on the ethics of violence and a disturbing cultural exploration that presents salient ideas on African American history in a presentation that sadly stays within the confines of its genre. Parker's directorial debut, The Birth of a Nation uses beautiful visuals and unremitting violence as a means to enforce its narrative gospel, coming close, but ultimately missing various chances for greatness.
Nat Turner is an educated slave in 1831 Southampton, Virginia. His master, Samuel, uses Nat's skills as a preacher to sell his verbal services to other slave owners as a means to quiet the ever growing whispers of insurrection. After countless atrocities, Turner has a spiritual awakening and leads a rebellion that kills dozens of slave owners and their families while also leading to the wanton slaughter of hundreds of slaves and free blacks in reprisal.
Parker, directed, wrote, and produced the film after being inspired by Turner's story in college. The strongest element of the script is how it depicts a world in which both the slavers and their victims are partners in an accepted reality. Many films about the horrors of the past often approach the subject matter with a two by four demeanor. Parker initially elects to tell Turner's story as a slow, organic metaphysical transformation. He begins as a slave who is bringing the word of God to his brethren, resigned to the inhumanity of his situation. The slave owners are depicted as a grab bag of awfulness, regarding the slaves as objects rather than flesh and blood, Penelope Ann Miller plays the plantation owner's wife who teaches Turner to read and its her reaction to Turner when he's banished to the fields that solidifies the unthinkable matter of fact way in which slaves were treated,
Elliot Davis's cinematography depicts the beauties of the rural south, with breathtaking wide shots of cotton fields and pristine rivers. The beauty is offset by dangerously close shots of the brutality and always keeping Parker (who also stars) at the center of attention. The visual story is choppy and undisciplined, but almost forgotten due to the solid ensemble and the shameful acts being portrayed. This however is where the film begins to unwind. There are some excellent dream sequences and surreal imagery that are sparsely placed within the narrative, paying homage to Turner's African roots and using lush symbolism to communicate an already apparent message. The idea of Turner's revolt being the logical consequence of his personal religious experience is the film's strongest attribute, and Parker chooses to focus on the bloodshed rather than this intriguing idea, thus sliding into familiar territory. The dynamic between slave and owner, with Parker and Arnie Hammer, is another example. The two actors have excellent chemistry, but this is forsaken in order to reinforce the villainy of slavery. It is the decision to focus on the visceral, rather than the psychological horrors of bondage that gives The Birth of a Nation a lukewarm finish.
Despite these flaws, Parker gives an excellent performance. His verbal cues and his fiery delivery of the sermons show the love that he has for this story and it drives the film into important territory. This is an vital story, and while some of the directorial decisions mire it in contrivances, its relevance to current events cannot be denied. Its straightforward presentation may be a weakness, but its also absolutely understandable.
In theaters now, The Birth of a Nation won the grand jury prize at Sundance. Parker chose to use the same title of one of the most infamous films ever made, a movie that depicted the KKK as heroes defending white America from the black menace. His intent and his inspiration are both powerfully communicated and woefully deafening with respect to the subtle aspects of the darkest period in American history. Using sickening visuals, solid performances, and a jack of all trades approach, The Birth of a Nation peppers the skin of the issues with buck shot, going for the throat rather than the heart. An excellent debut and an evident labor of love, this is the kind of film that stays with you long after you leave the theater. If you're interested in a divine parable that main lines its ideas on slavery and violence, then this is the film for you.