The following review was originally published as part of our coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
You could write a whole paper on the title. For the uninitiated, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation takes its namesake from D.W. Griffith’s landmark 1915 silent film. Griffith’s three-hour epic is best known for its groundbreaking editing, storytelling, and of course, its unapologetic racism. It’s hard to imagine selling a movie today where the heroes are members of the KKK. Well, there are some states that come to mind, but personal politics aside, it’s important to focus on Parker’s claim on that title.
Griffith’s film is based on hate. Parker’s is based on spirit. 2016’s The Birth of a Nation is chock-full of it. The film has been described by Parker as something that’s been with him for seven years, taking many of those years convincing people to help him make it. The dream has paid off for the debut director. And producer. And writer. And star of the production. As a result, The Birth of a Nation is one of the most confident writing and directorial debuts in recent memory.
Parker stars as Nat Turner, a slave in the early 19th century remembered for leading the largest slave revolt in US history. Parker could have focused on the revolt itself (which makes for a riveting climax), but he was correct in detailing the importance of showing us how a quiet boy who turned into an inspiring preacher could one day turn to violence. The writer/director doesn’t shy away from the effects of such violence on a man. This isn’t a story about a man being driven mad under the circumstances he finds himself in. It’s a story about a man being driven to act.
We’re introduced to Turner as a small child, growing up on a plantation where he has built a close relationship with his owner’s son, Samuel, and Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller), his owner’s wife. Upon discovering Nat has the ability to read, she takes him in to further his studies. She even brings him to church and has him read to the congregation. Parker reminds us that while these are certainly kind acts, the racism is still prevalent as Elizabeth politely tells Nat not to touch certain literature on the shelves. “These books are for white folks.” Don’t be disillusioned. This world is foul, and these are seeds planted for sweeping change.
The dying wish of Nat’s owner is that he be returned to the fields, so it’s there we see him grow up. As an adult, he begins to preach to his fellow slave hands, maintaining a pleasant-compared-to-elsewhere relationship with a grown-up Samuel played by Armie Hammer. While the actor’s fake teeth are awfully tough to get over, his performance is one of depth. Parker paints the picture of a man who begins decent (as an owner of humans can be) and lives life the only way he knows how, to one fueled by disappointment and alcohol, succumbing to the ways of the slave owners around him. Samuel isn’t a monster; he’s a human being, which is much more compelling.
Turner falls in love with a fellow slave named Cherry (Aja Naomi King, How to Get Away with Murder) and starts a family. It’s around this time that he begins to see what happens outside his world. Samuel begins receiving money by having Turner preach to slaves at neighboring plantations, bearing witness to unfathomable cruelties. He walks into a small room where men are hanging by their arms with metal mouth plates, drool dribbling down their chins. He sees a man on hunger strike have his teeth knocked out so as to better funnel his food down his throat. A slave girl is run around with a noose by a little girl.
This is where Parker’s performance as Turner truly begins to stand out. His interpretation of the man is so reserved that the moments when he is called to speak out or become impassioned have a greater impact. It isn’t a showy performance. As the writer and director, he easily could have propped himself up, but to him, it isn’t about Nate Parker so much as it is about Nat Turner. As Turner’s wife Cherry, King is up to the task of playing opposite such a powerful performance. She goes from emotionally broken to whole to physically broken without a false step.
Other performances don’t quite live up to those of Parker and King. Penelope Ann Miller’s southern accent leaves much to be desired. Mark Boone Junior’s reverend lands too close to caricature. Jackie Earle Haley’s monstrous slave catcher should have been broken up into three different roles, but instead represents the cause of the personal tragedies that befell Turner throughout his life. Haley isn’t bad by any means; it’s just an instance where Parker could have taken another look at the character.
The brutal realization of the world around him, an act of violence on his wife, and Samuel turning his back on him once and for all push Turner towards a path he had been straying from his whole life. Despite protestations from his wife to “Leave this to the Lord,” Turner looks closer at his Bible. For every passage slave owners and lawmakers base their beliefs on that slavery is a just act, the enslaved preacher finds a passage that repudiates theirs. The outcome is an uprising that does not spread across the country, but one that lingers in the hearts and minds of many. All the way to today.
The final 30 minutes are difficult to watch, and Parker is well aware. He doesn’t make it any easier on Turner. When the rebelling preacher says, “We’ll destroy them all,” he doesn’t say it with a sneer or with any excitement. His faith never wavers. He doesn’t love violence. He abhors it. But it’s become the only fight he has left in him, no matter the cost. From a filmmaking standpoint, the climactic battle at a gun distillery calls to mind Glory (directed by Edward Zwick, who serves as a co-producer here), while its finale echoes Braveheart, whose actor/director, Mel Gibson, is thanked in Nation’s closing credits.
There are no histrionics to be found in this The Birth of a Nation, even if Parker gets a little on-the-nose at times. A butterfly rests on the chest of a hung child. The cross is ever present in key scenes. A version of 1939’s “Strange Fruit” plays in a sequence set a century earlier. If we can forgive Tarantino for time-hopping his soundtracks and Iñárritu for his occasional “look-at-the-imagery” set pieces, certainly we can move on from Parker’s decisions in these moments. Besides, the transition of Parker from boy to man is as perfect a transition as you’ll find anywhere.
The Birth of a Nation arrives at a most appropriate time in our country’s current pop-culture climate. As a critic, you try to make your writing as timeless as the movie you’re reviewing, but there are exceptions to the rule. It’s impossible to discuss Nation right now without bringing up the #OscarsSoWhite movement that has led to boycotts of the upcoming ceremony. There are strong black voices out there. There are strong Asian voices out there. There are strong Indian voices out there. It’s a matter of giving more opportunities to visionaries like Nate Parker and Ryan Coogler. Expanding nominations in categories isn’t the answer. Expanding the playing field is.
Fake golden statues or not, Parker’s debut won’t be forgotten anytime soon. It’s only the beginning for the filmmaker, and I’m intrigued to see what he does next (fingers crossed it’s not a superhero movie). Yes, there are quibbles here and there preventing this from being an out-and-out masterpiece, but if a filmmaker can still move you to tears after the final shot of his or her movie, then their job is done.
Parker’s job is done.