The more you read about Nate Parker’s 1999 rape trial, the more you get a queasy feeling that never really goes away. He was acquitted, but is that proof of innocence, or just lack of evidence? It’s hard to even say you don’t know without it sounding dismissive. It’s a minefield, where the criminal justice system’s historic bias against black men runs directly into its historic male-biased treatment of sexual abuse cases in a zero-sum game. It’s a tragedy without much in the way of closure, so I can understand the hand-wringing over the film (which was co-written by Parker’s co-defendant, Jean Celestin who was initially convicted).
I can understand it, but I’m not sure the film itself is worth it. Judged solely as a film, The Birth of a Nation is… unexceptional. By the way, it also isn’t a referendum on the viability of black stories or the abilities of black storytellers, both of which have been proven countless times to anyone paying attention (underrepresented and historically marginalized though those stories and storytellers may have been). Nate Parker is a person, not a type; The Birth of a Nation is a movie, not a representative of types of movies.
Parker stars as slave rebellion leader Nat Turner. Like Snowden before it, maybe if you hadn’t heard or read anything about the real-life Nat Turner (as Penelope Ann Miller said she hadn’t during the TIFF Q&A), The Birth of a Nation might come as a revelation. Parker intends his movie partly to make a case for Turner’s inclusion into the pantheon of civil rights heroes, to recognize Turner’s sacrifice for the cause of black liberation. It’s a fine case to make, only Birth of a Nation makes it inconsistently. It’s by turns hokey, compelling, confused, and powerful, but above all uneven, because Parker never really chooses an angle.
We first meet Nat as a young slave on a Virginia plantation (every inch of which is covered in Spanish moss and actually looks like a Georgia plantation, probably on account of it was filmed in Savannah, Ga.), running through the slave quarters and manor house playing hide and go seek with the manor’s blue-eyed heir, Samuel Turner. Nat stands apart from other slaves on account of he’s apparently taught himself to read — which we intuit through a confusingly structured scene involving a book left on a rocking chair. “Rocking chairs, Spanish moss, frilly dresses — you know, Southern stuff!” you can practically hear Nate Parker shouting at his production designer.
The lady of the house (Miller), upon discovering Nat’s secret (just how she has discovered this secret isn’t quite clear), not only doesn’t punish Nat, but encourages him in his studies — that is, provided he reads the massa-approved books she suggests. Mainly the Bible, and not the ones on the upper shelves reserved for white folk. “You could never hope to understand those,” she says.
She’s nicer than her peers but objectively still not a great person. That her “one of the good ones” status only extends so far is an effective bit of nuance in a movie that’s otherwise largely lacking. Even the nice ones still think of slaves as lesser, like someone who’s kind to dogs. She starts grooming Nat to become a house slave, but her husband, the manor lord, wills on his deathbed that Nat be banished back to the fields, for reasons never made clear. I suppose you could read the manor lord’s murky motives (and general absence from the story) as a comment on the arbitrary, agency-free nature of bondage, of having to spend your life in thrall to the fickle whims of people you don’t know. But virtually every character in Birth has murky motives, and so it feels like flawed storytelling.
It’s hard to say exactly what young Nat feels about any of these developments. He’s mostly a bystander in his own story, someone things happen to, a big-eyed, Spielberg-face reaction shot. At first, this seems like it might be a result of the story asking too much of Tony Espinosa, the young actor playing Nat, but Nat’s slightly distant unknowableness endures even after we flash forward to his adult incarnation played by Parker.
All grown up, Nat is a field hand who moonlights as a preacher, generally the favorite of his new manor lord, Samuel, played by Armie Hammer, the grown-up version of the kid young Nat played hide and go seek with. Samuel’s pipe-smoking, smirking acquaintance, played Foghorn Leghornly by Mark Boone Junior, suggests Hammer could make a pret-ty penny hiring out his Bible-thumping slave to other plantation owners. Why, he could preach the gospel to their slaves, so that it might keep them in line.
Nat had it relatively good back home, with his nice-for-a-slaveowner lord, Samuel, who seems to treat him reasonably well. But this work, traveling the county visiting other plantations, brings him face-to-face with the horrors of slaves who don’t. In one scene, Nat and Samuel follow a slave master to his dungeon, where he has two slaves chained to the wall, medieval torture-style. One slave is on a hunger strike, refusing to eat, so the overseer knocks his teeth out and forces gruel into his bloody mess of a mouth with a funnel. It’s an image that’s unforgettably gruesome, but it also offers more confusion than insight. What was the slave getting out of this hunger strike that he couldn’t later get out of refusing to work or killing himself? What was the slave owner getting out of smashing up his own “property”? Knowing the answers to these questions would only make it more trenchant. Isn’t evil more evil if it’s entirely logical? As it stands, the scene doesn’t offer much about the nature of evil, just gruesomeness.
The various atrocities committed against slaves throughout Birth are graphic and believable, especially in contrast to its depiction of the white villains, who are universally sneering, dirty-faced, mustache twirling, chaw-chewing, hillbilly Hitlers, who never pass up an opportunity to belittle a slave or tell anyone who’s listening how much they hate n**gers. Birth casts Jackie Earle Haley as an unrepentant bad guy, a narrative decision about as on the nose as everything else. The less villain-ish whites, meanwhile, like Hammer’s character, like to puff corn cob pipes, absentmindedly stretching their suspenders out from their chests while spouting phrases like “mighty fine” and “I do declare.” What, no jug band? I’m fine with the villains being so villainous, but did they have to be so hokey?
The relationship between Nat and his childhood-playmate-turned-slavemaster is somewhat compelling. Hammer’s character frequently steps between Nat and more menacing white folks, affording Nat some humanity, though it only extends so far. He still expects discipline and deference, and especially wants to seem more authoritative in front of his white peers — always choosing his own vanity over Turner’s humanity when forced to make a choice.
As Hammer noted in the TIFF Q&A, it was common for future slaveowners and slaves to be childhood playmates before becoming master and slave — growing into their roles through societally-enforced, systemic racism, regardless of their initial egalitarianism. It’s an interesting idea, though it doesn’t entirely come through in the actual film. Sometimes Samuel is mostly mean, sometimes he’s mostly nice, sometimes he’s horrified by slavery, sometimes he participates in it. All we know about Samuel Turner for certain is that he drinks a lot, to the point where Birth almost feels like a comment on the evils of alcoholism.
Neither do we get much a sense of adult Nat. He preaches the slavery-justifying, turn-the-other-cheek parts of the Bible to the other slaves at first out of fear, but eventually can’t stand it any longer and starts preaching the parts depicting slavery as sinful in the climactic dramatic reversal. Why the change? There’s no “last straw” moment that really lands, and it’s a little confusing as to why a guy who’s been studying the Bible since he was a boy suddenly finds new parts of it. Birth depicts this change almost as a revelation. Nat’s most fiery oratory comes in the form of Bible passages, such that the film seems almost more interested in litigating the Bible’s true stance on slavery than it does Nat Turner’s place in history. Which would be a fine narrative choice to make, but Parker waffles. Nat is eloquent and heroic, but he isn’t quite a complete character.
Nat’s rebellion, which could’ve been a crowd-pleasing, ultimately-doomed but inspiring, one-day-living-in-freedom-is-better-than-20-more-years-living-in-bondage Braveheart kind of a thing, doesn’t quite land either. As a rebel, Nat doesn’t offer much in the way of tactics. The guy had to be at least somewhat clever and strategic in order to inspire as many terrified, terrorized slaves and evade capture for as long as he did, yet Birth of a Nation depicts him leading his followers straight into a suicidal volley of musket fire. Even if he were resigned to death, wouldn’t he want to kill a few more white people and inspire a few more slaves before checking out? Braveheart at least took pleasure in watching William Wallace behead British dickweeds; in Birth of a Nation, even the retribution feels a little flat. Shouldn’t this have been the edifying part?
In the final sequence, a young slave watching Nat Turner die in his failed rebellion dissolves into flash forward to the same slave, inspired by Nat Turner, leading a charge of a black brigade during the Civil War (à la Robert The Bruce). That seems to be Parker’s desired angle, that Nat Turner willingly sacrificed himself for what’s right, to inspire future generations. It’s the best, and most stirring moment of the film (and a strong ending does wonders for how people view your film, regardless of what came before). But by the time it comes, the movie’s over. Parker doesn’t set it up well, so it feels more like a retroactive justification than the culmination of a well-told tale.
And so… The Birth of a Nation is a flawed hero’s journey that can’t quite decide what it wants to be. It’s a grab bag of themes with uneven characterization and a plot that feels more like a fable than a confluence of characters. It’s filmmaking more on the level of Race than Selma or Malcolm X, its worthy subject notwithstanding.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.