Motion-picture: Birth of a Nation tells an important story
Whatever opinions one may have about Nate Parker due to the rape allegations circulating him, one cannot deny that he makes films from the heart. The Birth of a Nation, his recently released historical drama based on the true story of slave Nat Turner stirring a rebellion against abusive slave owners in Virginia during the 1830s, definitely has its flaws. Parker’s leading performance and direction are both a little shaky, bringing the film’s narrative down with them. But the film’s powerful message, and Parker’s faith in the audience, as he puts them through an unrelenting look at the hardships slaves faced, are convincing enough to place the film at the center of today’s conversations about race, right where it belongs.
Parker’s screenplay shrewdly begins with Nat Turner’s childhood, when he is taught to read the Bible by owner Elizabeth Turner, played with a precise balance of kindness and ignorance by Penelope Ann Miller (she doesn’t offer to move Nat into her home and teach him, she tells him, and only lets him read the Bible, as the rest of the books are for “white folk”). This comes just days after Nat’s father is forced to go on the run after getting caught stealing food for his family late at night. Nat learns to read the Bible and becomes a somewhat of a preacher (though not a self-assured one), unheard of for someone of color during this time.
Subject to arbitrary whippings and forced to pick cotton, Nat’s master Sam (Armie Hammer), who he grew up playing in the fields with, allows him to become a traveling preacher when the two enter adulthood. They tour the country so Nat can preach to slaves Bible passages that supposedly justify the treatment of slaves and champion obedience (in this context, to their owners). However, Nat slowly becomes cognizant to the scope of slavery and their sometime horrific living conditions during these travels. During one of the film’s most brutal scenes, a slave who refuses to eat unidentified foul-smelling slop gets his teeth hammered out one by one so that his master can funnel the food into his mouth.
Though Parker cannot seem to channel the emotional scope required for his interpretation of the historical figure (his face remains passive during even the most personal scenes), he succeeds at illustrating the quality of life for slaves through harrowing, unflinching storytelling. The script enjoys some much-needed lightness with a romantic subplot involving Cherry (How to Get Away With Murder’s Aja Naomi King), a fellow slave who falls in love with Turner despite trust issues. Parker deftly twists this subplot into perhaps the film’s most emotional moment, in which Cherry is beaten by owners while not doing anything wrong, inspiring Turner to organize the infamous rebellion.
Parker can’t seem to convey the depth of his performance his own writing called for. Some scenes that should have powerful emotional weight are quickly glossed over, lessening the emotional impact the film may have had and is clearly striving for. Parker plays a somewhat idealized version of Turner, a portrayal in which nothing the character does is categorically wrong. Because of this, the character’s transformation from timid preacher to a warrior leading dozens of slaves into battle feels unnatural, like we missed some important character development somewhere in the film. While the character’s growth arc is clear, it’s easier to cheer for the real life figure of Turner for his actions rather than the portrayal here. The movie coasts by what could have been some rich emotional territory, thus lessening the impact it could have had.
Still, this is Parker’s highest-profile role yet, as well as his first directorial feature. Technically, the film contains a range of successes – costuming and settings are solid, and Elliot Davis’s cinematography creates some unlikely, strikingly beautiful portraits. Parker fought for the creation of this film since 2013, when he quit acting to raise $10 million for the production of the film, telling his agents he wouldn’t work again until he could play Nat Turner. Seeing Turner as a hero whose story needed to be told, this demonstrates Parker’s level of commitment to the picture; and perhaps explains why his respect-fueled performance was just a little too squeaky clean to fit into the movie.
It’s worth noting that the film received glowing reviews after its debut in Sundance this January, before news about Nate Parker’s rape allegations broke in August. Since then, reviews have generally skewed downward (though still remain positive at 78%), and its box office debut faltered on a movie that should have been considered a must-see. Whether these are direct results of the allegations or not remains unproven, but one could connect the dots. Whatever preconceptions one may have about the director or the material, the point stands that Turner’s story is an important one to recount, and Parker did so admirably here. It’s a shame that somewhere in the buildup the film’s main talking point has become the controversy surrounding it.