Nate Parker‘s The Birth of a Nation is an urgent primal scream from American history’s darkest hour. Parker produces, writes, directs and stars in this much needed telling of the trials and tribulations of slave-turned-revolutionary Nat Turner. The relatively well-to-do preacher’s eyes are open to a new interpretation of the good book when his master shops out his sermons, profiteering off Turner’s calming demeanor to quell rebellion amongst more brutalized slaves. He’s soon in high demand from the most vicious slave owners across the land, all who want less sass and more backbreaking for their neglected and enslaved laborers.
It’s no accident that Parker’s film takes its title from the 1915 silent film of the same name. The NCAACP tried to have the film banned – The Birth of a Nation (1915) infamously had white actors in black face performing African-American characters in cheap, damaging parody, as violent, dumb savages. Some historians have held the film responsible for breathing new life into the then-waning Klu Klux Klan. Parker’s film, in effect, is the antithesis of D.W. Griffith’s. It’s the clenched fist to Griffith’s swinging noose and Nat Turner is the Malcom X to Solomon Northup’s Martin Luther King. There’s spittle that rage trembles from Parker’s lips and he harnesses it to tremendous effect.
The character transformation that takes place in The Birth of a Nation isn’t unlike that of Malcolm X’s. Once feasible ideals of harmony and tranquility are washed out like topsoil in a tropical storm by one horrific incident after another which carve deeper and deeper into the collective flesh of the slave community. Nerves are pinched, backs are broken, flesh is reaped like cotton. But most importantly, spirits are cracked as if by the whips of the white masters.
In contrast to some other nearby slaves, Nat’s circumstances are enviable. The fact that he grew up playing games with his now owner Samuel Turner (played fearlessly by a yellow-toothed Armie Hammer) has created a bond between the two, one which proves regrettably malleable as time crunches forth, fraying and cracking the connection they shared in their youth. Though Nat’s relationship to wife Cherry (a spirited Aja Naomi King) is the one immobile emotional cornerstone in his life, his adjustable association with Samuel makes for more nuanced and era-specific character work.
Nat Turner’s levy holds by the grace of the word of God, one which is often selectively wielded in the film by white pastors who’ve cherry-picked passages eschewing the holiness of obedience and servitude. Parker’s film presents Nat like a prophetic figure, opening on a tribal ceremony an alignment of three chest birthmarks mark him as a future leader. There’s a dark continent mystic quality to this moment that reflects the underlying spirituality of the film, which often erupts in cryptic dream sequences of glowing African tribal peoples.
In keeping with Parker’s mission to provoke, inspire and outrage, The Birth of a Nation only shies away from violence for budgetary constraint purposes. While Steve McQueen’s deadly precise and clinically repulsive drama showcased the nauseating artistry of historic cinema, The Birth of a Nation has a more slapdash aesthetic to it, one which serves to accent both the fervid immediacy and resolute toil of Parker’s craft. Its flaws are full of character.
A passion project, Nation took Parker a full seven years to get made. For a first time director, he’s outdone himself. And though there’s some occasional slop to his script and infrequent grudge to his style, the messiness of The Birth of a Nation only further endears the passion that motivates it. Parker’s dedication shines through especially in his hot-blooded, howling performance of Turner. The Beyond the Lights actor has made one hell of a case for his earning a bucket full of nominations come year’s end and though there is no holistic prize for taking on almost every single duty a film requires, his dutiful, loaded performance is really the cream of the crop.
Were one to classify The Birth of a Nation in the same category as 12 Years a Slave, they wouldn’t be entirely remiss but to assume more parallels than “well-made slave drama” would be to misinterpret the fed-up subtext of Nation. If forced to, one could more easily bracket it as Roots meets Braveheart. There’s a sense of revolt to the film-making that defines it, especially in the era of #OscarsSoWhite Some of the more action-heavy beats demonstrate a reminiscence to Mel Gibson’s Scottish revolution epic but partially languish under Parker’s freshman direction and limited resources, providing more derivation of the norm than anything exclusively his. Where he shines as a director is in the moment of calm before and after the storm as he’s serves up some categorically excellent, “artsy” money shots.
Laying the groundwork for the Emancipation Proclamation and eventually the civil rights movement, Nat Turner was effectively the first African-American human rights activist and Nate Parker’s docudrama gets both the broad strokes and individual trees that make up the forest right. Masterfully painting solitary scenes of character revelation and inflexible social relationships, Parker’s breakout is sure to claim many, many awards throughout the year. And though there are brief flashes of amateurish to Turner’s feature that keep it from the masterclass territory of 12 Years a Slave, they extend a personable quality of grave importance that’s utterly overflowing from every inch of Parker’s passion project.
CONCLUSION: Nate Parker’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’ is a stormily crafted character piece with faint structural limitations. Writing, directing, producing and starring as preacher-turned-revolutionary Nat Turner, Parker lights an artful powder keg sure to turn audience’s into mushy sympathizers raging for blood.