Uneven, Yet Rousing, “The Birth of a Nation” Offers Narrative Agency to Nat Turner and Company

Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation (Nate Parker, 2016)

A fiery mix of Haile Gerima’s 1993 cinematic bloodbath Sankofa, which profiles a West Indian slave uprising, and Steve McQueen’s 2013 meditative 12 Years a Slave, which contemplates the toll wrought by slavery on all involved in its implementation, Nate Parker’s rousing The Birth of a Nation, a dramatized retelling of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion, has much to recommend it, in spite of its director’s well-publicized past allegation of rape. As a first feature from Parker, however, it suffers from not insignificant screenplay issues and a tendency on the novice helmer’s part to emphasize each dramatic beat with soaring chords from composer Henry Jackman’s often overly sentimental score. Still, despite these problems, The Birth of a Nation deserves to be seen for what it does right. McQueen’s own Oscar-winning film was a beautiful work of art that shed needed light on our nation’s disgraceful past; Parker’s film, though far less accomplished, grants its African-American characters agency in their own liberation, an important upgrade, no matter how clumsily handled. In addition, any film that reappropriates the title of D.W. Griffith’s virulently racist 1915 epic and gives it new meaning is OK in my book, whatever its weaknesses.

In a bit of historical irony, the film opens with a quote from slave owner Thomas Jefferson: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” We then segue directly into a premonitory prologue where little-boy Nat Turner is declared a prophet by what looks to be an African-American shaman of some sort. Corny as this device may be, it has the effect of moving us away from an established authority – Jefferson – to the more militant point of view of those who will rise up. We then follow young Nat to his plantation, where he catches the eye of the mistress (a fine Penelope Ann Miller, Saving Lincoln), who teachers him to read, setting in motion his own future intellectual emancipation. Unfortunately, when the master dies, he wills that Nat be sent back into the fields. The transition from house to field slave is not easy for the boy, but it does allow for a quick montage of cotton picking that transforms the child into the adult actor who plays him: Parker (Beyond the Lights), himself. In the passage of time, Nat’s childhood playmate, Samuel, has now become lord of the manor, and the two have developed as easy a rapport as can be expected, given the disparity in their status. As played by Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger), Samuel is spoiled and lazy, but not unkind, even sticking up for Nat when he is assaulted by another white man. That will all change, later in the film, once alcohol, boredom, and the institution of slavery work their ugly charm. No one can survive something as ugly as enforced bondage, not even those in charge.

As a character study in these early scenes, the film is at its strongest. Parker and Hammer work well together, and their false intimacy speaks volumes about the fraught relationship between master and slave on which much of our early history was built. There’s a strong cast of supporting players, including Aja Naomi King (How to Get Away with Murder), Roger Guenveur Smith (Dope),  Gabrielle Union (Think Like a Man Too) and Chiké Okonkwo (Paradox), among others, as fellow slaves; Jackie Earle Haley (Preacher) as a wicked slave hunter; and Mark Boone Junior (Sons of Anarchy) as a white minister who views Nat as an especial existential threat. Little by little, the more we spend time with all involved, the clearer it becomes that no system built on cruelty and exploitation can or should last. Nat, now a preacher (thanks to Samuel’s mother’s early teachings), finds himself used to pacify other local slaves, earning money for Samuel in the process. Eventually, Nat loses faith, as the brutal treatment of his brothers and sisters (including, unfortunately, given Parker’s own personal history, a rape) prove too much to bear. Rebellion awaits.

When it comes, though, it’s disappointing. Having done a solid job of set-up, Parker can’t quite handle the payoff with the same level of craft. Instead, he dwells on images of extreme violence to the point of fetishizing them, and cannot resist the temptation to lean on the musical score as overwrought accompaniment. That said, he does pull off one tragically powerful sequence at the end, once the revolt is defeated, where we see hanging bodies of martyred slaves hanging from trees while Billie Holiday sings “Strange Fruit” on the soundtrack. Is it the most original artistic choice? No. Does it work as effective document of the sins of our past? Yes. And so the movie goes, torn between Parker’s competing impulses towards sentiment and harsh realism, sometimes evocative, sometimes less so. Not a perfect movie, but as necessary, in its own way, as its artistically superior cousin of a few years ago. If Parker survives his newfound scrutiny, it will be interesting to see what he does next.

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