The Birth of a Nation is directed, produced, written by, and stars Nate Parker, as the famous slave revolt leader Nat Turner. The movie begins with Nat’s spiritual upbringing as a young slave, and we witness him blossom into a man of God on a Southern plantation. When the mother of his children, Cherry, is attacked by a group of vicious slave-hunters, Nat is sent down a swirling rabbit-hole that eventually leads him and an enlisted group of enslaved men to violently uprise against their masters in the South.
This being his freshman feature debut, a lot is certainly riding on Nate Parker’s shoulders, as he is both the film’s creative captain and star. The film shares the same title as D.W. Griffith’s controversial, yet widely-considered masterpiece from 1911: a film that changed and adapted cinematic technique, but with it, told a racist and disturbing tale of misconstrued impersonations of African Americans.
Nate Parker quite controversially shares the same title as this film, and wisely so. By defacing this absurd film of the past through painting a stronger and more empowering light on the slave-uprising movement of the 1800’s, Parker’s film attempts to change the significance of the title that originally invited racism through negligence. And with a good measure, too, as it potentially could encourage more and more African American’s to embrace the past and let it define them, instead of letting the voices that fight against them be the loudest. I may be exaggerating here in that the similarities in the two titles being more significant than they are, but indeed, this is a theme that comes up often in the film. I would be surprised to learn that Parker had no intentions in choosing the same title as the original film.
2016’s The Birth of a Nation shines brightest mostly from Parker’s leading performance, as well as that of supporting actor Armie Hammer, who plays Nat’s plantation owner Sam. Both characters are deeply conflicted, emotional, and rooted in reality. Hammer’s plantation owner is somewhat sympathetic and filled with depth, in that he is living on the coattails of his now deceased father. In order to maintain strength among the neighboring plantations, he must continue to impress local plantation owners with his Southern hospitality and disposition. This may seem a bit hypocritical, as what his character stood for was the enslavement of mankind to make benefit himself. However, there is more depth to him as this seems to trouble him at times, despite him continuing along with the flow. As for Nat, Parker puts in an incredibly detailed and nuanced performance into every frame, despite some pieces of dialogue being fairly heavy-handed. He absolutely steals the show, and is a talent to look forward to in the near future.
On a technical level, the film is fairly bland. There are a few beautiful moments captured from the lens of cinematographer Elliot Davis, but overall, the film is unnaturally bleak, and comes off as amateurish at points. The score is overpowering at times, and cliche’. The most beautiful moment of the film, however, is a very disturbing montage of images played out to a modernized rendition of the classic tune of Strange Fruit. Moments like this one, however, are too few and far between, and left me wanting more of an emotional impact from the film.
My main flaw with this film comes down to the story. Overall, the film spends most of the two-hour runtime setting up Nat’s early stages in life that, as an audience, we easily detect lead up to and influence his decision to revolt. However, the final revolt and third act is so truncated and sparse. It’s too fast. Moments feel trimmed for time or lack of shooting, and the final battle that we have been waiting for is maybe twenty seconds long. Maybe this is a weird critique to place on the film, but there is just no energy to the final act, after having spent most of the runtime building up to it. It comes off as rushed and hasty. The film also neglects the audience of any sort of vengefulness to the lead villain, the slave-hunter who beat Nat’s wife and potentially killed his father. The character, played by veteran character actor Jackie Earle Haley, is supposed to be the main motivation for all of Nat’s actions, and yet, he almost felt like an after-thought. He was completely forgettable and beyond cliche’ (“He must be the villain because he looks like Kenneth Branagh in Wild Wild West!“), which is definitely not a good thing for the main antagonist of the film.
Overall, The Birth of a Nation isn’t bad. It’s certainly not great, though, and that’s an issue for me. It’s entirely forgettable, which is a shame to the real-life story of Nat Turner and his revolt. Nate Parker puts in a hell of a performance, but as a director and writer, I wish he had spent some more time on the tenacity of the story, and the braveness of the topic at hand. It’s tame, and doesn’t offer much of anything new to the atmosphere of film. Despite a harrowing story and some great performances, there’s a lost potential for a stronger message, instead of the relatively lukewarm production that it ended up being.
Written by: Jake Sanders