by Philip Price
Nate Parker's “The Birth of a Nation” plays with the title of D.W. Griffith's 1915 silent film to reappropriate its phrase of a title to no longer be used in a deprecating manner towards black people. Griffith's film (which is a requirement in any film school due to it being widely accepted as the first feature length motion picture) used blackface to portray African American characters while, given the time in which it was made, is also wildly racist in many regards. For Parker to be willing to challenge a term and the cultural baggage that goes along with it that has now been established for over a century is bold. This boldness ultimately works in his favor though as his film certainly stands to make a statement. Coming off a whirlwind debut at the Sundance Film Festival at the beginning of this year the film scored a record for the most expensive acquisition deal in the festivals history with Fox Searchlight snatching up Parker's slave drama for an astonishing $17.5 million. Of course, in the months since that acquisition stories have re-surfaced about the seventeen year-old case in which “The Birth of a Nation” director, writer, producer, and star Nate Parker was accused and acquitted of sexual assault and that four years ago the woman who accused him committed suicide. Such allegations can of course not be taken lightly and it doesn't exactly bode well for Parker that he depicts or suggests two savage and humiliating rape scenes in his film as performed by malicious and one-dimensional Caucasian villains, but to let those allegations influence the judgement of this piece of art he has created feels unnecessary. Sure, this is solely a product of Parker's doing as he had a hand in every stage and facet of this production and thus his particular view of the world undoubtedly made its way into the DNA of the film, but to allow such outside influences such as actions from nearly two decades ago to come into account for a piece of art made by an individual who has no doubt grown, matured, and maybe even changed in that time period isn't wholly fair. And I understand-neither was what he was accused of doing. It wasn't fair that the repercussions of his actions might have contributed to the accuser's death, but taken on its own terms-only as a piece of filmmaking depicting an ugly time in history that simultaneously attempts to re-write multiple generations worth of certain interpretations of history- “The Birth of a Nation” is a powerful and unapologetic film that uses that aforementioned boldness and an appealing saga of revenge to craft something memorable if not exactly transcendent.
Beginning in Southampton County, Virginia in 1809 we meet a young Nat Turner (Tony Espinosa) who is witness to his father stealing food and killing a white man in the process of attempting to escape. While giving us the reason as to why Nat will turn to his mother, Nancy (Aunjanue Ellis), and grandmother, Bridget (Esther Scott), for comfort for the remainder of his life while also displaying the reason he took up the head of his household at such an early age this first sequence in the film also sets up our main antagonist in the form of Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley) a nasty overseer who literally rides atop his high horse for the majority of the film and may as well be a faceless henchmen for the slavery overlords as he takes advantage of every rule he can in order to beat down on "disrespectful" slaves. The film quickly chronicles how a young Nat more or less becomes friends with his plantation owners son, Samuel Turner (Griffin Freeman), and how his owner's wife, Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller), teaches him to read the Bible thus preparing him for his future as a passionate follower of God and a powerful preacher. The film then fast-forwards 22 years to where Samuel (now Armie Hammer) has taken over for his father to run the plantation and Nat has become something of his right-hand man. We see as Nat meets a young woman at a slave auction, encouraging Mr. Turner to purchase her, and falls quickly in love with her. Cherry (Aja Naomi King) returns Nat's feelings and they are soon married and having a child, but Turner has different plans for Nat as the South is facing a drought during this period in history and he requires Nat's unique skill of reading and preaching to help him keep their farm afloat. Other plantation owners will pay good money to have a slave come in and motivate their own slaves who are working for next to nothing due to the drought with the slave owners hoping their human property might listen and be inspired more by one of their own. It is through these realizations of how other slaves are treated at other plantations-an opening of the eyes if you will-that leads to the revolution within Nat's mind that eventually gives way to the rebellion he mounts on the battlefield.
For the first half hour of the film Parker paces things in something of a tedious fashion. It feels intentionally slow, but to the detriment of the film as it never has that immediate hook that brings us into this time period. Rather, Parker wraps us up with some striking, but abstract imagery that lends the audience more a cautious curiousness in place of pure intrigue. This choice in pacing feels odd by virtue of the fact there's no narrative drive in the traditional sense, but more a chronicling of the growth of our protagonist and the events in his life that will culminate in that aforementioned rebellion we all know is coming. It is also within this first half hour to forty-five minutes that Parker shoe-horns in certain aspects of Parker's life so that he may use them for emotional payoffs later. These are the bigger issues with “The Birth of a Nation” as the film hardly develops the romantic relationship Between Nat and Cherry before he proposes and then two scenes later is having a child. Parker seems to hope the scene in which Nat recommends Cherry as a thoughtful gift to Turner's sister Catherine (Katie Garfield) and a necessary purchase is enough to solidify his character's affection, but the juxtaposition of the sometimes dull pacing with the rushed quality of this relationship reminds us that Parker is a first time director and that while he certainly has a vision for this story the ironing out of the execution of the details can be trickier than anticipated. It is in this waiting only to hurry up fashion in which the film implements its narrative that it also feels like we spend too much time on certain events and characters that never go anywhere while once we do get to the last 25 minutes or so in which the bulk of the action takes place it's all over before we can really grasp the extent of Nat's actions. In short, Parker tends to short change himself in certain, more critical areas by spending too much time on less effective moments that aren't necessary in order to deliver the full weight of Nat's literal and psychological revolution. The case of Hammer's Samuel Turner is a perfect example in that he is consistently portrayed as one of the kinder plantation owners, but who is ultimately an unhappy alcoholic. Why does he drink? Why doesn't he have a family? These questions are merely touched upon, but the answers are never even suggested making his fate not nearly as complex or affecting as it could have been. Parker will surely learn that less is more as there are a few directorial choices that undermine the power of certain moments while I'd also hoped for a few more unique flairs from such a vision, but some of the imagery Parker and cinematographer Elliot Davis stage are truly striking somewhat making up for the lack of more inspired storytelling.
“The Birth of a Nation” makes a point to remind the audience time and time again how infuriating the mistreatment of human beings could be. It illustrates this through the travelling of Samuel and Nat from plantation to plantation where Nat is meant to preach to his fellow slaves in ways that more or less promise them an eternity in heaven if they listen to their masters here on earth. Of course, the point of it all is that slave owners were essentially the worst kinds of Christians in that they justified their inexcusable actions by bending passages of the Bible to suit their own wants and needs. It is this exposure to how his fellow people are treated-the travelling that brings to light the different levels of cruelty and brutality-that incites the need to do something about it rather than simply continue to bend to their every whim. As much of the films emotionality is based solely in Parker's performance this tactic of dolling out example after example as to why he feels pushed to do what he eventually does is effective in that it riles up the viewer as much as it does the protagonist. Parker's performance specifically in a scene with his beaten and battered wife as well as that of the obligatory whipping scene are beyond searing. Parker's charisma is present throughout-making it easy to see why the man could garner such a following so quickly, but it is in these moments that Parker demonstrates a level of intensity in the fervor of his performance where we can see the actor reminding himself why he committed himself so completely to bringing this story of Nat Turner to the big screen. They are moments that are truly show-stopping and that relegate the shortcomings of the narrative missteps to that of mere afterthoughts. The crux of the film though, is this moral struggle Nat comes to deal with in preaching an interpretation of the word of the Lord that he doesn't necessarily agree with. Nat is preaching the word of a man who, if taken according to the white man's interpretation, has given Nat and his people no reason to believe in him. How does one go on having faith in something and someone who seems to have so easily allowed this entire race of white men to stand between them and their savior? How does one accept such doctrine as truth when it's been used as long as one can remember to oppress? This is the main idea that gives “The Birth of a Nation” and Nat Turner the drive to discover there can be numerous interpretations; to realize they can use their slave owner's greatest weapon against them. One has to wonder how the events depicted in this film didn't occur sooner-how there wasn't a larger revolution that plucked the roots of such a crooked system from the ground instead of Nat Turner's small escapade that broke only a few branches, but it is in Parker doing as his character does when he comes to realize that nothing is stopping him from changing how things have always been to how he thinks they should be that makes this film one to be noted and appreciated even if there is no desire to ever see it again.