The Birth of a Nation is an earnest retelling of Nat Turner’s life, but I feel like Nate Parker’s film is a bit too formulaic and safe for how serious and important the film wants to feel.
For those non-history buffs out there, Nat Turner was a slave preacher who led a rebellion of slaves in Virginia, that the film would lead you to believe was the first step in ending slavery in the United States. I think a lot of my issues with Parker’s film are more with Turner’s story than anything else, but Parker buys in 100% with Turner’s religious motivations that I just can’t get behind. Turner was a deeply religious man, and Parker doesn’t let us forget it, but I can’t imagine how someone kept their faith through the horrors Turner saw. And the way Parker frames Turner’s evolution to finally revolt, preaching for more than a few years to keep the slaves of his county “in line” while his master made a lot of money off it.
Turner isn’t someone you can root for, even if he didn’t have a choice and Parker does his damnedest to make you sympathize, and when Turner finally does decide to act he doesn’t seem to think about the big picture of things. His anger at the situation he and all slaves were in is entirely just, it was horrible, but he had to of known the repercussions of his bound to fail rebellion would reap on his community. The reaction of the whites of Virginia was reprehensible, and race relations aren’t even necessarily all that better today, but I am not really sure Parker nails the connection between the past and today. A slave futilely murdering his people’s masters doesn’t really translate to the African-American issues of today and Parker’s message of you have to keep fighting isn’t clear enough, or loud enough, to really be felt either.
Parker’s film recreates the era well enough, feels a bit small, but he did make the film on a modest budget. I was caught off guard at how traditionally the film moves along, which kind of took me out of the world quite a bit. I know that doesn’t feel like a fair assessment, but I was anticipating Parker to shoot for a more realistic experience. He even shies away from the horrors of slavery on most occasions. Yes, there are a couple of brief flashes of brutal violence, but Parker’s film aims to feel more warm than it does to feel scary. I’m not saying you can’t make a film about love and hope in the slave community, but Parker wants and needs those lows to sell Turner’s story. The film’s tone is just all over the place. I appreciate Parker’s attempt to make an accessible film, while also trying to punch the viewer in the mouth, but I just never really felt a whole lot while watching the film. Parker never really connects you to anyone, it is all surface level, even with Turner. The one thing that Parker doesn’t quite all the way commit to in Turner’s life is his reporting of visions and messages from God. There is some angelic imagery and visions in the film, but they are edited in rather oddly and without any explanation. If we know Turner had these visions, he must have told somebody about them, but the film never address them. And while on the editing, the film never found a flow outside it’s pretty clearly defined acts. It sticks with the biopic formula, but Parker makes some weird editorial choices that throw you out of the picture on more than a couple of occasions.
Parker does put together a pretty solid cast, but most are caught in those aforementioned surface level roles. Parker plays the lead Turner, and while I usually enjoy Parker when he pops up in something he is almost too cool, too contemporary feeling for Turner. Parker has a swagger he can’t shed and his grin threw me off on more than one occasion. Armie Hammer plays Nat’s owner, and he gives the part enough shades of drunken grey that we don’t know what to expect, but buy his desperation that lets you hate him. Aja Naomi King brings some fierceness to her role when she first pops up on screen, but ultimately ends up getting to be nothing more than a pretty face to get beat on. Jackie Earle Haley pops up a couple of times and plays stereotypical evil guy very accurately, while Colman Domingo doesn’t get much to do either as Nat’s number 2. Aunjanue Ellis stood out among the crowd though, as Nat’s mother, and I wish we got more with her along Nat’s story.
The Birth of a Nation has its heart in the right place, but Nate Parker’s filmmaking just doesn’t have the stuff. A couple of impressive shots and a good cast can’t elevate his script, which is tonally all over the place and doesn’t have a clear message. But ultimately, in the end, The Birth of a Nation just didn’t have the emotional weight it was going for.