The Birth of a Nation is ideally timed to tap into the zeitgeist of race-based violence. It’s a provocative picture, but co-writer/director/star Nate Parker doesn’t have much more than shock value with this latest attempt to inspect the savagery of American slavery.
It’s a tired Braveheart retread with nothing new to say about the Black Experience, often recycling brutality found in better features. Instead of inspiring a cultural awakening, Parker has a made an exploitation movie, and not a terribly effective one at that.
Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
The Birth of a Nation is an exploitation movie, and not a terribly effective one at that.
As a young slave in the American South, Nat Turner (Nate Parker) showed an ability to read that shocked his owners, soon guided by the white mistress of the house, Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller), to explore his gift, teaching him the power of the Bible.
Becoming a preacher for his fellow slaves, Nat won respect and positive treatment from owner Samuel (Armie Hammer), who crumbles under pressure, turning to alcohol to numb himself as he barely participates in daily responsibilities. While Nat takes a wife in Cherry (Aja Naomi King), he also builds a reputation throughout the land, soon asked to officiate the baptism of a white man.
Triggering long-dormant hostilities, Nat is subjected to severe punishment, inspiring a dream of revolt he tries to communicate to other slaves, using the fury of God’s teachings to organize an army.
What’s interesting about The Birth of a Nation is its roots in history, dramatizing Turner’s 1831 rebellion which, for 48 hours, offered local slaves a chance to turn the tables on their owners. However, Parker (who co-scripts with Jean Celestin) doesn’t immediately jump to warfare. He starts at the beginning, generating a bio-pic atmosphere as young Nat learns the ways of segregation, education, and his African heritage, with his intelligence helping to pull him out of squalor.
There’s a sense of mysticism at the beginning that Parker returns to periodically, pinpointing the child as a great African warrior to come, but mostly The Birth of a Nation remains firmly entrenched in watching greasy, porky, thick-tongued whites threaten easy black targets.
The Birth of a Nation unfolds predictably, as Nat struggle internally with the violence, urging Samuel to purchase Cherry at a slave auction to protect her from harm. Parker includes a close-up of a white man stroking his crotch, just in case we don’t understand the situation.
Caricature eventually claims all white participants, eventually positioning the picture as a B-movie without the shades of gray necessary to realistically complicate the story. 12 Years a Slave achieved more dimension.
Nat’s war cry is surprisingly brief, with the actual uprising only a small part of the picture. It’s appropriately grotesque, watching Nat and his soldiers of God taking hatchets and knives to their masters. Mayhem ensues, but the combat is short and the budget limitations obvious, leaving most of the movie to Nat’s churning headspace.
Parker has a sharp visual sense, and with more money, he’d have achieved a better film. The Birth of a Nation doesn’t feel powerful and it isn’t fresh, mostly covering familiar ground not only claimed by previous slavery features, but Hollywood epics as well.