The Birth of a Nation is not a perfect film, but it is an important and necessary one. For whatever sins first-time director Nate Parker makes, and it’s not many, I think of the seemingly endless number of black people murdered by police, the clueless TV idiots who say that slavery wasn’t so bad, or that black people should get over it, or the morons who proudly wave a Confederate flag.
I haven’t read that many reviews of the film, so I’m not sure where the vitriol comes. Is it because of Nate Parker’s past? I don’t review people, I review films, and if Parker isn’t a great person I don’t know, but he’s made a good film. The weak box office probably hurts it for Oscar consideration, but it does deserve a few nominations.
Parker reclaims the title of D.W. Griffith’s racist masterpiece in telling the story of Nat Turner, a slave in Virginia, played by Parker. Nat is owned by a relatively kind family. The matriarch (Penelope Ann Miller) teaches him to read, and he becomes a lay preacher. When his owner dies, his son (Armie Hammer), whom he played with as a child, is almost like a colleague. When they pass by an auction and Nat realizes that the woman on the block is going to be sold as a sexual plaything, Nat gets Hammer to buy her. He will end up marrying her.
It’s his calling as a preacher that starts to turn Nat. Hammer is hired by neighboring plantations to have Nat preach to their slaves, reading carefully selected parts of the Bible that pertain to slavery. But Nat sees that he has it easy–the slaves he sees are treated worse than animals. Hammer starts to drink and is in debt, and begins to see Nat as rebellious. He loans out another slave’s wife as a whore for another white man, and then the final straw comes when Nat baptizes a white man. Hammer has him whipped.
Nat then, with just a few men, organizes a rebellion, and kills 60 white people. It is a short-lived revolution, though, as soldiers end it when the slaves try to steal munitions from an armory. But Nat Turner has lived on as a symbol (there were other slave rebellions, notably by Denmark Vesey), and in this movie he’s a guy who just can’t watch and take it anymore.
This should be required viewing for those who say that slavery wasn’t so bad. Of course, right-thinking people know it was a horror and a permanent stain on the American psyche, but even seeing such outrageous things as a man having his teeth knocked out so he can be force-fed through a funnel can only hint at the terror. We do see the dichotomy between the field slave and the house slave, as Hammer’s valet (Roget Guenver Smith), a light-skinned black, prefers to keep the status quo and tells Turner that by his actions he has killed them all. But the film captures the anger that can only stay welled up so long.
As a director, Parker makes some great choices and some dubious ones. I thought his inclusion of an anachronistic song, Billy Holliday’s “Strange Fruit,” which was about lynching, was great. Other decisions, such as the obvious placement of a stained glass cross in an important scene, or a butterfly gently flapping its wings on a hanged black man, were straining things. I can’t blame him for placing the armory in the appropriately named town of Jerusalem–that was true.
He was helped greatly by cinematographer Elliot Davis. Much of the film takes place at night, a time when slaves could more freely move about, but also be abused more easily. Davis uses natural light often, and some shots are stunning, as when Turner, still tied to the stock at which he was whipped, is surrounded by candles put out by his compatriots. A beautiful day-time shot is a seemingly endless field of cotton, shown to young Nat when he is introduced to field work.
I don’t know enough about Turner to know how much is true. I suspect that a character played by Jackie Earle Haley, who bedevils Turner from when he was a child, is a fictional character meant to be a composite villain who reaches a satisfying end. But that’s the way of historical films–they are never one-hundred percent accurate, or they might as well be documentaries. I would like to see a PBS show or something on the real Nat Turner just to see what was true and what was not.
Parker is fine as Turner, and he surrounds himself with a good supporting cast, especially Mark Boone Junior as a preacher who likes to take a drink. What is disappointing is that he doesn’t spend much time developing the female characters. His wife, played by Aja Naomi King, is really more of a plot device than a character (she is beaten and raped, by Haley, of course). Gabrielle Union, who plays the slave pimped out to a white man, doesn’t even have a line. This was apparently a decision shared by Parker and Union, but it reinforces a stereotype that black women have no power (the story goes, when black women joined The Black Panthers back in the day, they were mostly asked to make coffee).
But still I was moved by The Birth of a Nation, and was glad Parker had the gumption to make it (he also wrote the script and produced). It’s a must-see.