REVIEW: The Birth of a Nation [2016]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 120 minutes | Release Date: October 7th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director(s): Nate Parker
Writer(s): Nate Parker / Nate Parker & Jean McGianni Celestin (story)

“I pray you sing to the Lord a new song”

It’s impossible to watch Nate Parker‘s The Birth of a Nation today without making note of the controversy surrounding him. Emotions have run high and the first-time director has met a backlash of calls for boycott stemming from a 1999 rape case of which he was acquitted. The victim later committed suicide and his public response upon discovering this news didn’t necessarily show remorse like many believed it should. It’s tough to say now whether he was innocent of wrongdoing—look at all the men who’ve been acquitted with substantial evidence against them the past couple years—but it’s also tough to declare him guilty. He knows what happened and he’ll have to live with his actions, but none of that has anything to do with his film.

You can call me naïve and say, “Of course it does because he’s alive making money and she isn’t,” but that’s a stretch. You can also explain how his subconsciously brazen indifference to what he may or may not have done allowed him to add rape to the story of Nat Turner (Parker) onscreen, but that too is more you reading into things to prove his guilt than inferring on the film itself. The tragic fact is that rape occurred during the 1800s between white men and slaves. It ruined lives, ripped families apart, and caused irreparable psychological and emotional damage. Maybe Turner’s wife wasn’t beaten to an inch of death to open his eyes to the reality of his situation, but odds are someone else he knew was.

I don’t know much about Turner’s actual life, but what I read is more a blueprint than anything else filled with faith and visions of God. Parker (and Jean McGianni Celestin who co-created the story for the script and was convicted in the same 1999 rape case before having his conviction overturned) therefore has to craft an origin tale able to deliver a boy born in slavery to the position of guerilla warfare general in the plantation trenches of his Georgian neighborhood. Liberties are taken with how his father leaves them to introduce a vile monster in Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley) and Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) is changed from Nat’s original slave-owner’s brother to his son (and friend to the boy in youth) for added relationship gravitas.

These alterations and others were made to flesh out Nat’s evolution as well as add demons onto Samuel’s shoulders. Parker found ways to increase the role of God and the Bible, including a warped reverend in Mark Boone Junior‘s Zalthall to spar against by spewing contradictory passages and numerous other plantation owners of increasing sadism to pay for Nat’s services to preach at their slaves a message of total subservience and obedience. Samuel begins to devolve under the influence of alcohol to quiet the visions of violence he must endure and ignore in order to build important partnerships needed to keep his business and home solvent while Nat can’t help acknowledging his role as a wolf in sheep’s clothing that’s become complicit in his race’s demise.

The story as put forth makes sense and the tragedy within both paints the nightmare of slavery and impetus for Nat’s shift from preacher of God to archangel of wrath effectively. As such Parker renders the film more a sequence of powerful imagery than by-the-book narrative—which does seem to align with the real Nat’s “visions”—for better or worse. Some are oddly injected without context or clear meaning (a bleeding ear of corn). Some are blatantly on-the-nose (a black angel calling to Nat or young white girl skipping with a young black girl, rope in the former’s hand and around the latter’s neck). But you can’t deny the power of others that really pack a punch (painted Nat the adult prophet shielding Nat the child in dream).

The violence is graphic, the after effects of white punishment brutal to look at. It’s impossible for Nat not to realize his role as a puppet or the opportunity afforded him through education (thanks to Penelope Ann Miller as Samuel’s mother Elizabeth) when witnessing such atrocities. To see Cherry’s (Aja Naomi King) state when Samuel buys her for his sister is harrowing. The conditions of prisoners like Will (Chiké Okonkwo) unavoidably make you turn your head. And the actions forced upon Esther (Gabrielle Union in a brief, wordless role) show how even “kind” slave-owners will sacrifice their souls and never see their “property” as more than that despite past memories. This is why it’s so invigorating to watch Nat, Hark (Colman Domingo), and the others viscerally wreak vengeance.

So besides a few weirdly cut metaphorical vignettes and some pacing issues that may elongate the middle third past necessity, I don’t see how The Birth of a Nation can’t be looked upon as a worthwhile document of courage against extreme odds. It consists of strong performances from the entire cast down to Nat’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and nana (Esther Scott) consistently standing tall against the likes of Cobb with real and feigned fear to protect loved ones. Even Hammer and especially Miller excel at a deeper nuance than Parker needed to give his slave-owners. We see the former’s Samuel wrestling with his heart, losing the fight. We see the latter’s Elizabeth’s steely gaze at horror, unable to stop the escalation of injustice surrounding her within a patriarchy.

I believe the era and circumstances are boldly presented while the legacy of Nat Turner is rightfully allowed its place in cinematic annals alongside other heroic stands bearing similar resemblance such as Braveheart. And any fault that may lie in Parker’s directing choices is surely made up for by his performance. The speeches he gives after he can no longer ignore what’s happening stir the soul, his tear-filled stoicism when rising up against adversity absolutely memorable. It can come across like a vanity piece at times, but many efforts where the director plays the lead do. It never quite matches the impactful resonance of its teaser either, but few things could equal those two minutes set to Nina Simone‘s “Strange Fruit”. Even so, Parker’s work shouldn’t be dismissed.

[1] Nate Parker as “Nat Turner” in THE BIRTH OF A NATION. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
[2] Mark Boone, Jr. as “Reverend Walthall” and Armie Hammer as “Samuel Turner” in THE BIRTH OF A NATION. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
[3] Nate Parker as “Nat Turner” and Aja Naomi King as “Cherry” in THE BIRTH OF A NATION. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

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