Silver Screen: The Birth of a Nation ***1/2
It’s both improbable and not surprising at all that, before Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, the story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion had never been told on the big screen.
Improbable because it’s such an inherently dramatic and impactful incident in American history. Not surprising at all given the underrepresentation of nonwhite stars and stories in Hollywood, and because the true tale is as problematic as it is fascinating.
In August of 1831, enslaved fieldhand and preacher Nat Turner led an uprising of his fellow subjugated African Americans. Using farming implements, blunt instruments, stealth, and the element of surprise, they went from house to house, killing whites and gathering more soldiers for their cause. During the course of two days, Turner’s rebelling forces killed more than fifty-five men— and women and children.
American moviegoers have long been squeamish about the subject of slavery, and understandably so. It’s an intensely uncomfortable, nationally shameful subject, and the power of cinema to convey the emotional heft of the atrocity is significant. Prominent films that directly address the topic are somberly lauded, but relatively few: Twelve Years a Slave, Amistad, Beloved, and the seminal TV miniseries Roots.
It’s harrowing enough for the white filmgoer to behold the ghastly scenes of torture and dehumanization. A depiction of Turner’s rebellion doubles down on that, reacquainting viewers with slavery’s terrible iconography— the chains, the whipping post, the sexual exploitation— and then compelling them to consider the troubling possibility that the murder of women and children was an understandable, perhaps justifiable response.
If that is the case, and the viewer’s sympathies lie with Turner, it forces a harsh reappraisal of just how fundamentally abhorrent the realities of slavery could be to render a retaliatory atrocity justifiable. It’s not just a deeply uncomfortable notion to consider, it’s an essential one.
Imploring this debate is the most significant function of Nate Parker’s frequently impressive debut film. It alternately soars with haunting, unforgettable images and stumbles with moments of clunky, amateurish filmmaking that give way to clumsy sentimentality and a whole other set of troublesome traditions in Hollywood.
Parker himself stars as Turner, born into slavery but encouraged in his prodigious intellect by a (relatively) kindly slave owner (Penelope Ann Miller). He learns to read and becomes a preacher whose sermons are considered calming to his fellow slaves. That’s the opinion of Turner’s owner, Sam Turner (Armie Hammer) and Sam’s pal the Reverend (Mark Boone Junior), who begin renting out Nat’s services to plantation owners in the neighboring counties. His travels not only impress upon him the fullest horrors of slavery, but suggest his own coerced complicity if he uses his powers of persuasion to pacify his brothers.
Most of The Birth of a Nation is concerned with Turner’s political awakening and the tragedies that compel him to take up arms. When said rebellion does come, Parker curiously rushes through it. It’s a strange choice. Parker successfully cultivates tremendous dramatic tension on which he fails to capitalize. The rebellion plays less like an inevitable culmination than a hasty conclusion.
The rebellion turns out to be one of the less memorable elements of the film, the strongest elements of which are its most subtle horrors. The violence perpetrated against Nat and his fellow slaves is agonizing, but no visual lingers in the mind quite as sharply as a brief shot of a giggling white child gleefully leading a young black girl by a rope tied around her neck. The children skip along, playing a game they don’t realize is a rehearsal for the evil arrangement into which they were born. A similar scene of a debutante-aged girl delighting as she receives a young black handmaiden is similarly affecting in its depiction of the casual carelessness with which these horrors were perpetrated— and an example of the complicity of the so-called innocents Turner will later help murder.
Yet the film itself is troubled— and troubling— at many levels. Taken entirely as a piece of artistry, it’s wildly uneven, following one stunning scene or another with a supremely hokey montage or a mawkish image. (The scene in which Turner marries his wife, played by the able Aja Naomi King, looks like a deleted scene from a Hallmark TV movie.) Similarly, Parker doesn’t always have the gravitas to pull off his starring role, a fact highlighted by the especially strong ensemble around him.
But the single most problematic element of The Birth of a Nation is Parker and cowriter Jean McGianni Celestin’s use of rape as a motivator for Turner. Sexual exploitation was a grim reality for slaves, one Parker depicts quite well in a profoundly upsetting scene in which Samuel, a white man Turner considered perhaps more humane than his fellow slave owners, demands that a black woman give herself over to one of his houseguests at a party.
With this effective scene already in place, why use the rape of Turner’s own wife as one of the primary incidents that inspires his rebellion? Not only does it undercut the much broader concern of Turner’s would-be revolution, but it transforms the story into the zillionth revenge narrative in which a brave man goes out to defend a defiled damsel. That would all be worrisome enough had Parker and his cowriter not had their own dark histories with an alleged campus rape back in their own school days (the details of which I’ll omit here, but feel free to Google).
The Birth of a Nation is certainly a fascinating intersection of ideas and agendas. It can be either great or terrible, depending on its context: sexual politics, racial history, cinematic traditions. The title alone, reappropriated from D.W. Griffith’s massively influential piece of Klan propaganda, bespeaks the confluence of conflicts it embraces. That Parker is potentially both a chronicler and perpetrator of very different kinds of injustice is an intellectual knot that may take years to untangle.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillerComedy.