Author’s Note: This review was previously published by MonkeyGooseMag on October 9, 2016.
Considering that Nate Parker began writing his Nat Turner script seven years ago, it’s remarkable that the timing of The Birth of a Nation is both the movie’s biggest draw but also one of its biggest hindrances (even setting aside the behind-the-scenes controversy). Black Lives Matter, a movement born from the acquittal of George Zimmerman in 2013 and the shooting of Mike Brown in 2014, hadn’t yet brought racial inequalities to the forefront of the national conversation when Parker began the script in 2009, but it certainly had by the time production began in late 2014. And the movie’s universal acclaim at Sundance was almost certainly influenced by the second consecutive year of all-white acting nominees at the Oscars, announced mere weeks before the movie’s premiere in Park City.
However, another relevant event happened between 2009 and now: 12 Years A Slave won Best Picture at the Oscars three years ago. Both fact-based historical dramas telling the story of American slavery through the lens of one man, both brutally violent, and both with award season ambitions, The Birth of a Nation is bound to draw comparisons to Steve McQueen’s epic, to the detriment of Parker’s film.
Outside circumstances aside, the movie itself tells the story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in 1831 Virginia. As a boy, Nat is taught how to read (exceedingly rare for slaves at the time) so that he can learn and preach the Bible. Likely threatened by the idea of being replaced by a slave (or resistant to the idea of a slave preaching to whites), the white preacher who owns Nat orders him to work in the fields instead of in the church, leaving Nat to preach the Bible to fellow slaves instead. Years later, the now-deceased preacher’s son, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), begins to bring Nat to various plantations in the area to give sermons to more and more slaves, turning a healthy profit in the process. The incentive for this traveling preaching is to spread carefully-chosen church teachings (namely the unquestioning obedience aspect) to as many slaves as possible, which the white slave-owners believe will be better received if delivered by a fellow slave. As you can probably guess, this plan backfires, as Nat’s eyes are opened to the senseless brutality endured by slaves all over, inspiring him to hatch a plan for rebellion.
Let’s start with what works. Yes, even without the on-going national discussion on race, the message the movie delivers about fighting against injustice and oppression will always be relevant. However, I acknowledge that that message comes already built in to a story like this and has nothing to do with Parker’s execution; just by making this movie, regardless of how well or poorly it’s made, that message will always be a part of it. And while the movie has plenty of violence, it’s mostly used purposefully and effectively. There’s a brief moment early on when Nat drives a stagecoach past a dead slave lying on the side of the road, and flies are gathering around the crusted-over, bloody hole in his skull. While it’s shocking for the audience, Nat passes it by with barely a second glance, establishing that what’s shocking for us is routine in Nat Turner’s world. As for Turner himself, Parker’s performance as the lead is superb, and while his stock in the Best Director race has all but vanished and the movie’s Best Picture prospects have dimmed drastically since January, his performance is certainly worthy of a Best Actor nomination.
That said, Parker’s performance is practically the only one in the movie, and the supporting characters mostly fall flat. While Aja Naomi King has a few nice moments as Turner’s wife, the potential for her character is largely wasted and she’s mostly just fodder for Turner’s arc. Perhaps Parker was so focused on molding Nat Turner into the character he envisioned, he forgot to properly develop everyone else, leaving his other actors without real roles to sink their teeth into like he has. Armie Hammer was assumed to be a Supporting Actor contender (as Michael Fassbender was nominated in that category for his ruthless slave-owner turn in 12 Years A Slave), but even his character – who probably has the most (attempted) nuance of anyone besides Nat Turner – is underwritten.
It feels disingenuous to explain these flaws by pointing out this is Parker’s first screenplay, because we don’t know if it’s his first screenplay (we just know it’s his first writing credit, and those two often aren’t necessarily the same thing). However, we do know that it’s his first time directing a feature, and it shows. The most glaring problem with the movie is its jumbled pacing, which a more seasoned director may have been able to streamline. The first act feels like it’s an hour long and the third act feels like it’s five minutes (it’s not and it’s not, but they feel that way). I understand the emphasis on setup; there’s an interesting idea that needs to be explored about how the slave-owners wanted to use the Bible and Nat’s intelligence as weapons to keep slaves oppressed but both backfired and led directly to the uprising. That’s some interesting and ironic payoff. But… that idea isn’t really explored very much, and instead, the strongest catalysts for Nat to hatch his plan have little or nothing to do with his preaching.
Once his plan is hatched, Turner doesn’t really look back or second-guess himself, convinced that his chosen course of action is the right thing to do. Parker seems to agree, as the final shot of the movie directly ties Turner’s rebellion with the Union’s victory in the Civil War and subsequent abolition of slavery a few decades later (tacitly implying one led to the other). That’s clearly Parker’s view; others might argue that Turner’s rebellion did more harm than good, given the hundreds of slaves killed in retaliation of the rebellion and to squash imitators. But minus a title card before the credits and a brief moment where a cowardly house slave expresses his doubts about the plan, the negative impact of Turner’s rebellion is largely ignored.
Parker has no obligation to include or highlight the negative impacts; he’s the storyteller and he can tell what story he wants and how he wants (this is merely based on a true story, after all). But leaving them out drains the movie of nuance, not unlike American Sniper (2014), where Clint Eastwood similarly portrayed a very complex, troubled figure as simply as possible, stripping him of nuance and leaving a one-dimensional hero who can apparently do no wrong. And that’s just…boring. The Birth of a Nation has a very worthwhile message; exploring (or at least acknowledging) the flaws of Nat Turner wouldn’t have detracted from that message. It just would’ve made him (and thus the movie) more interesting.
By bringing up 12 Years A Slave, I don’t mean to imply that The Birth of a Nation shouldn’t have been made because we already have 12 Years A Slave. There can obviously be more than one “American slavery movie” — just look at how many Holocaust movies we have — and given how much the subject is ripe with conflict and drama, I’m sort of surprised there aren’t more. That said, you don’t want to be the one to make the first Holocaust movie after Schindler’s List, because there’s almost no way to follow that. And while The Birth of a Nation is far from bad — there are certainly some very effective moments — it’s just not as good as I wanted it to be. If Parker’s movie had been the definitive movie on American slavery (as it could’ve been, if Parker had been able to finance it sooner), it would be much easier to look past its flaws and embrace the movie for its message and subject.
But we don’t need to.