Nate Parker may have overreached with his controversial debut, but it’s still one of the most important films you can see this Oscar season.
I want to say from the outset that I feel woefully inept discussing this film. Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is made with such obviously deep, personal conviction that it I was awed in its presence. And, as an extension of that filmmaker’s race and culture, the film is so beautifully unapologetic in its blackness that, as a white man, it feels like I have no credentials to discuss it.
That is not a slight. The Birth of a Nation is a magnificent film in many ways, and even if this particular picture can’t be fully embraced due to some obvious flaws and the controversy surrounding it, I pray that films in this vein keep getting produced. We need them as film lovers. We need them as a culture. We need them as a country.
Parker’s film about Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion is so political that you can’t even get past the title without discussing it. Ironically, but purposely, named after D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film about the founding and rise of the KKK, Parker’s film takes the original’s ideas about cultural emergence and flips them on their heads, citing Turner’s rebellion as the origin of black power in America.
This is Parker’s passion project, and his name appears as the first four credits at the film’s end, starring in the picture in addition to producing, directing, developing the story, and writing the screenplay. It’s a massive undertaking, and his ambition should be applauded, even if he’s bitten off more than he can chew as a first-time filmmaker.
The Birth of a Nation follows Turner from childhood to adulthood as he is proclaimed a prophet by an elder, becomes a charismatic preacher among his people, and eventually comes to interpret the Bible as a mandate to rebel against his bondage. Parker is a striking figure, exuding a quiet strength in the face of hardships, and relying on the word of God even as his captors use it to justify his enslavement. This is a man connected to the earth, God, and his people. He certainly looks like a classical, if reluctant, hero.
When a pervasive drought hampers cotton production the local preacher (Mark Boone Junior, Sons of Anarchy) urges Nat’s owner, Samuel (Armie Hammer, The Social Network), to use his slave as a traveling preacher of sorts, visiting nearby plantations and preaching his message of peace and subjugation to his fellow slaves in hopes that his words will quiet any notions of revolt (while also fattening Samuel’s pockets). These should be some of The Birth of a Nation’s best moments, but Parker never lets us any further than skin-deep into our protagonist’s head, to the film’s detriment.
You won’t find anything resembling 12 Years a Slave’s revealing conversations and confessions here. The Birth of a Nation understands that superior film’s interest in depicting the physical horrors of slavery, but it can only grasp at the mental and emotional ones. Turner’s visits to other plantations exposes him to cruelties far beyond what he experiences on Samuel’s farm. Parker’s Turner certainly looks pained, but we never get the necessary explanation of how the conflict between these slaves’ conditions and his ministerial message of peace ravages his soul.
The lack of explanation leaves Turner’s transformation from peace advocate to militant feeling hollow. We see the series of events that lead to it, but we don’t fully understand how they change the man. Is his grandmother’s death the final straw? Is it his wife’s brutal rape at the hands of white racists? Surely, those events are barbaric, but what makes them worse than what Turner has endured for his entire existence?
Parker’s film is a testament to the power of the visual image, and Birth’s images are its greatest asset. Director of photography Elliot Davis’s style reminds me of Cary Joji Fukunaga’s work on Beasts of No Nation, combining mystical images with bright bursts of color and the film’s over-arching blue hue. Important moments are shot symmetrically, with the camera’s crosshairs trained squarely on a central image: two candles burning as Turner and his wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King, How to Get Away with Murder), prepare to consummate their marriage, Samuel’s place at the head of the table, flanked by his attendant slaves during a party celebrating the plantation’s financial survival thanks to Turner’s ministry, a stained-glass cross watching over Turner’s first murder. The images are as powerful as Parker would hope, but it’s not enough.
Parker wants his film to succeed on the raw power of these images, but they can’t do it alone. We need more understanding when dealing with a subject as thorny as Turner’s violent rebellion. The subject matter demands it. The Birth of a Nation may not fully embrace Turner’s violent means, but it certainly doesn’t shy away from them. The film’s third act is brutal and unflinching, showing Turner and his companions violently murdering their owners. I’m not here to defend these slave owners, but the film doesn’t balk at showing Turner and his company beheading other humans and framing it as heroic. It can’t be anything else when Parker and Davis already shot Turner’s vicious whipping as a crucifixion and resurrection.
Turner is the clearly the hero of this story, giving birth to a nation of black power. It’s indicative of how Parker paints his characters with too broad of a brush. It’s not that Samuel, Reverend Walthall, or slave catcher Raymond Cobb being evil is the problem, it’s that deceit and moral superiority is their only characterization. The inverse goes for Turner, Cherry, and the other slaves. Generations of students have learned that Nat Turner led the most successful attempt to violent overthrow their bondage, but The Birth of a Nation had the opportunity to add nuance to the story. Sadly, it does not.
I’m not entirely sure what to say of the film’s violence. On one hand, it’s wildly effective. As I said, you can’t deny the power of the images that Parker and Davis use. Parker’s Turner is a magnetic figure whether handling a bible or an ax. These men thirst for freedom, and you share their ache, but I can’t deny my troubles at squaring this violence with Turner’s Christianity (that the film was marketed with the slogan “Be Like Nat” is endlessly befuddling to me). At the same time, I’m not ignorant of my own cultural slant. Am I simply ignoring the Old Testament in favor of the warmer, friendlier New Testament? Would my opinion be different if this film was about the white John Brown and his raid on Harper’s Ferry? It’s no secret that white America is much more comfortable embracing men like Fredrick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. than Malcolm X and Nat Turner. What’s troubling here — the message, or the color of the men who wield it? It’s something for each viewer to consider. This film will make you uncomfortable, and that’s the idea.
Ultimately, I’m not here to bury Parker or his film. I wish it was better. Parker has obvious talent, but I wonder if this was too bold of a first project for a first time filmmaker. I’d love to see The Birth of a Nation that Parker would have produced if this had been, say, his fifth film. I expect it would have been more nuanced, and more mature. Still, Parker is not apologizing for his controversial work, and he shouldn’t. I hope he’s emboldened moving forward. I just hope he’s more thoughtful, too.