The Birth of a Nation is Stillborn


The Birth of a Nation recounts an underdiscussed and pivotal moment in American history, but director Nate Parker pulls punches in this vanity project.

Upon premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, actor Nate Parker’s directorial debut The Birth of a Nation was hailed as a masterpiece; 20th Century-Fox spent an ungodly sum ($17.5 million) to acquire the rights. Was this the next 12 Years a Slave? Despite its obvious aesthetic mimicry, Parker’s film depicts an important event in American history through the eyes of an amateur passing a test in Film Production 101. Its images provoke, and rightfully so, but Parker’s blind desire for recognition does nothing but turn Nat Turner’s story into the Nate Parker story.

Nat Turner (Parker) is a literate slave whose owner (Armie Hammer) takes him on the road to preach obedience to other plantations. As Nat bears witness to the atrocities committed against other slaves he seeks to establish a rebellion to turn the status quo.

The Birth of a Nation’s issues has nothing to do with its content but how Parker and crew present it. As director, star and producer Parker creates a Christ-like figure for him to play, right down to recreating the Crucifixion pose after a whipping. Characters aren’t written three dimensionally, but act in service to Turner. Turner’s wife Cherry-Ann (fantastically performed by Aja Naomi King) exclusively talks about items Turner needs to know, never about her own feelings as a woman.

Nat and Sam spend an inordinate amount of time roaming from plantation to plantation. This allows Parker as Turner to pontificate and give big Oscar-bait speeches while voyeuristically aiming the camera at a multitude of horrors. Lifting scenes whole from Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave the audience isn’t given anything specific about Turner, just two-hours of generic moments.

This isn’t Nat Turner’s view of history so much as Parker’s, and the result is a fractured narrative where the actual rebellion is left to the final ten minutes. The lack of buildup towards the film’s reason for being presents nothing but violence with a coda attached discussing how it begat more violence. Does Parker see Turner as a Malcolm X figure who foresaw violence as the only means of resolution? If that’s the case then the lone scene of brutality doesn’t define that. Furthermore, the coda mentions Turner killed slave-owning “family members” despite a scene of a woman’s murder. If Parker wants the audience to accept Turner’s actions why backtrack?

It’s possible this “sorry, not sorry” tone involves with the faith-based audience it’s marketed towards. However, the religious elements have all the subtlety of a hammer to the face (which kind of happens to a character in the film). Parker is a brilliant orator and his rallying sermon to a group of traumatized slaves, tears streaming down his face, captures all sorts of promise. It’s a scene the film should hold on to because it contains the power the rest of the film fails to capture. Unfortunately it’s underscored by overabundant Christ imagery and a literal angel in the final scene.

From a directorial standpoint Parker has a long way to go. Closeups are the predominate show and slow cuts between two characters illustrate their connection, giving off a Hallmark movie vibe. When Turner kills the main baddie you half-expect images of all those the man has wronged to flash across the scree; the fact that it doesn’t is remarkable. Other moments are the result of sloppy scriptwriting, like Jackie Earle Haley playing the only villain in the entire South.

Horrific real-life moments in the life of American slaves are depicted, but the camera’s slow-motion zooms reek of shock value. These images are shocking, and rightfully so, but the cinematography implies audiences won’t care unless they’re given reasons to be sick. What Steve McQueen presented so skillfully in 12 Years a Slave was the complacency of the people to slavery. Moments were shocking because they were treated in such a blase manner. Here, the exploitation of others is treated just as exploitatively by its director. A little girl dragged around on a leash is terrible to see on its own, but the camera presents it in slow motion to give every belittling second.

Image courtesy of 20th Century-Fox

Several articles about Birth up the separation of artist and art, due to past allegations of rape against Parker. Two significant rape scenes are in the film and they demonstrate the inability to separate between the two. One character’s rape is used to galvanize Turner to action. The other, involving Gabrielle Union in a non-speaking role, focuses solely on how the men feel about it, not the women. Union’s assault is totally unnecessary to the film, so it’s inclusion leaves the audience scratching their heads more than anything.

Judging everyone else’s performance is tough because Parker’s Nat is the only one provided significant personality. (He is the Chosen One after all.) Armie Hammer rocks fake teeth as the weak-willed Sam Turner, his mood shifting from quasi-friend to outright villain, with the transition stemming from the wobbly script. Penelope Ann Miller and King are great and able to rise above the shoddy writing.

Related Story: Seven Must-See Movies of October

Those looking for an in-depth examination of the Nat Turner rebellion free of directorial interference should look elsewhere. The Birth of a Nation tells a serious story in the simplest way possibly by focusing on its star and no one else.