The Birth of a Nation is a difficult movie to critique, simply because it’s pre-release buzz and controversy overshadow it to such an extreme degree. There’s an implicit bias to like the movie simply because of the story its telling without a white director in the chair, but Nate Parker and Jean Celestin’s history of sexual assault puts a rather strong damper on that enthusiasm. I’ll admit right away that I can’t provide an objective analysis, both because of these external pieces of knowledge and because of my own separation from the source material as a white non-American without in-depth knowledge of this corner of history, but nonetheless, I have some issues with The Birth of a Nation that don’t prevent it from being quite striking at times.
Nate Parker is credited as the lead actor, director, producer, and writer for The Birth of a Nation, and while his complete and utter ownership of the project is commendable, his position as the centre of the film shows clearly on screen. He’s a fine presence as Nat Turner, but in its laser-focus, nearly every other character feels flat. The movie finds its way to the rebellion in a very workmanlike way, piling trauma upon trauma on until an inevitable snapping point (including, uncomfortably, two major instances of sexual assault), but rarely with much nuance. Parker stumbles on the odd arresting visual along the way, such as a recurring dream sequence in the woods or a white child leading a slave on a leash, but misses just as often, such as with a recurring angelic vision of Cherryanne or a smash cut to bleeding corn. But there’s depth to the story that is mostly glossed over. As presented, Turner’s relationship to his owner Samuel, played by Armie Hammer, is a dramatic gold mine, as the two grew up together yet find their power dynamic greatly shifted when the senior Turner passes. As it stands, Samuel is a parable of deserved damnation to those who claim virtuousness by simply being “not the literal worst”, but the interpersonal dynamic isn’t fully explored. The movie also skirts the morality of the rebellion, avoiding the murders of the children of the plantations. Given the circumstances, it’s possible to make Turner a sympathetic figure even with said moral crises, but avoiding the issue entirely sanitizes the rebellion to (rightful) revenge porn. The score also seems to be something out of a costume-drama bargain bin, although it makes tremendously affecting use of Nina Simone in the late going.
While The Birth of a Nation isn’t as engrossing as it should be, it tells a story worth telling with a reasonable amount of panache. The most evocative piece of the whole work may be its title, reclaimed from an early-20th-century KKK-boosting epic. It suggests a very different birth of America, one built of a very different revolution. For that alone it earns points.
The Birth of a Nation (2016)
Directed by Nate Parker
Starring Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, and Penelope Ann Miller
Rotten Tomatoes (74%)