Nate Parker’s directorial debut “The Birth of a Nation” (A biographical/historical film centering on the Mississippi slave Nat Turner who led a slave revolt in August, 1831) has clearly been made with a lot of passion and energy. Parker spent six years trying to make the movie (ultimately having to go out and get it made himself) and that determination shines through. Also, it’s certainly an important and timely film not only because it sheds light on a historical figure and event that isn’t well known by the general movie going audience but also its focus on fair treatment for African Americans relates to the recent string of police shootings and the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement.
As a film, “Birth of a Nation” is well acted across the board. The cinematography by Elliot Davis is crisp and polished while Geoffrey Kirkland’s period production design is rich and detailed. That being said it’s is very much a directorial debut (and an ambitious one at that), meaning Parker’s writing and directing doesn’t always match the significance of the subject matter (or his apparent passion for it) in terms of quality. Sometimes that passion translates to heavy-handedness and lazy screenwriting. And the last third of the film, focusing on the actual rebellion, is sparse and underwhelming to say the least.
Most of the film focuses on Turner before the revolt as a young a preacher preaching to fellow slaves, working in the cotton fields and meeting his future wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King). He’s also exposed to the horrors of slavery on a daily basis. These sequences of brutality are impossible to watch without feeling uncomfortable. During one particularly gruesome moment, a slave’s front teeth are chipped out with a pick so he can be force fed with a funnel. In another scene, after Turner’s master Samuel (Armie Hammer) buys Cherry as a present for his little sister Catherine, (Katie Garfield) she squeals like a little girl whose just been given a new doll. While not as overtly violent, the scene is just as sickening and infuriating as the tooth scene.
However the film doesn’t just fixate on the brutality of slavery. We also see the romance blossom between Cherry and Turner. These are some of the best moments in the entire film as they give Turner some much-needed character dimension. In these intimate, quiet moments Turner isn’t the authoritative preacher or resistance fighter in training but a gentle and charming man. Parker’s direction here is tender and understated and his and King’s chemistry is effortless. In one amusing scene, as he’s giving a sermon, Cherry walks in and her radiance forces him to get distracted and lose his train of thought. Even Turner is susceptible to the charm of a lady.
Though, what’s most fascinating and thought provoking about this pre revolt section of Turner’s life is the film’s commentary on the interpretation of religion and how the words of the bible can be used to promote polar opposite rhetoric/ action. On the one hand, the white slave owners use the bible as a form of oppression—telling illiterate slaves that they should obey their master because the bible commands it. Even Turner is oppressed by the bible; the only book he’s ever been able to read as a black man is the bible. And as a young preacher, Turner is initially recruited to preach submission and obedience to his fellow slaves. He’s being used to betray his own people. However, when Turner finally does decide to fight back the decision is motivated by religion; Turner sees the bible not as a text of oppression but a text of freedom and resistance. In both cases the bible is being used to fit two widely different agendas. Parker’s screenplay can be a little too preachy at times. You can’t make a Nat Turner movie without the religious component but there are some admittedly clunky conversational sequences; sometimes characters simply restate on the nose passages from the bible in place of actual dialogue, which is ineffective and lazy writing.
Though, the screenplay’s heavy-handedness doesn’t become a major problem until the problematic final stretch of the movie. Turner’s transformation from average preacher to resistance fighter is unconvincing. His a-ha moment and change in demeanor happens too abruptly, feeling forced. In reality Turner did believe he was chosen by God to lead the rebellion but I imagine that was a gradual process. I doubt he simply woke one day and decided to rise up and kill white people in the name of God. Being fed up is one thing, being fed up to the point of enacting bloody revenge is entirely different and I don't think Parker is successful in conveying this change.
The entire last section dealing with the rebellion feels choppy and abridged (as if Turner ran out of money) with valuable pieces of information missing. Why did that slave kid end up betraying Turner? When the rebellion reaches the armory how did the US Army know and have time to set up an ambush? Furthermore, we see very little of the initial planning of the rebellion outside of one brief scene in the forest where he meets with a group of fellow slave conspirators. It also would have been nice to see more of the relationship between Turner and those conspirators earlier on in the movie.
The rebellion, followed by Turner’s capture and subsequent execution resembles a montage in how quickly it moves along. The uprising should be the centerpiece of the film. It’s what everything else has been leading up to. Instead it plays like a cold, inert afterthought. The film either needed to be longer or Parker should have trimmed down the rest of the movie. In fact, the very first section involving Turner as a little kid could have been cut out entirely, or at least reduced to a couple scenes. I don’t think we needed see three different people tell Turner that he is “special.” And I know we didn’t need an old wise man sitting around a camp fire proclaiming that Turner has “been chosen by God” to do great things (again, really poor, obvious writing). As it stands, “The Birth of a Nation” is frustratingly anti-climactic, neglecting the most significant part of Nat Turner’s life.
In the end I admire “Birth of a Nation” more than I like it. It’s an important film, not just because of its subject matter and relevance but also because we need more films about people of color made by people of color. Parker refused to give up on making the film and I respect that. I wish the film were better but Parker at least shows he has the potential to be a great director.