Review: “The Birth of a Nation” (2016)

3.5 out of 5 stars.

The Birth of a Nation” is the title of D.W. Griffith’s landmark 1915 film, a movie that remains controversial thanks to its heroic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan.  Filmmaker Nate Parker applied that same title to his 2016 film about the 1831 slave uprising led by Nat Turner in an attempt to challenge the racism that that earlier film promoted.  It’s an effective and thought-provoking strategy, especially considering today’s tense race relations; it’s just too bad that Parker’s movie itself isn’t as deep as the ideas behind it.

The film opens with a look at Nat Turner’s childhood as a slave on a plantation in the antebellum South.  He shows an inclination towards reading and is taken to live in the big house by the plantation owner’s wife, Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller).  But when her husband dies—passing along ownership of the property to their son Samuel—he commands her to send Nat out to work in the fields.  And that is where we find him when the film jumps some time ahead, to when Nat is an adult (played by the film’s director/producer/writer, Parker).

Samuel (Armie Hammer), who is about Nat’s age, is struggling with financial burdens; he was once a respectable character, and now we see him increasingly turning to drink and mistreating his slaves.  Nat serves as the preacher for the slaves on the Turner plantation, as he can read.  To make some extra money, Samuel decides to accept an offer to travel with Nat to neighboring plantations, where he should preach sermons to help subdue rebellious slaves.  It is here that Nat—who previously appeared at least mildly content with his situation—begins witnessing (and later experiencing) the violence and oppression white slave owners direct toward their black slaves.  It becomes harder and harder for him to preach things that are in direct contrast with what he is witnessing, ultimately leading him to organize a rebellion against the slave owners.

Parker and Hammer are great in their roles, but many of the supporting characters outshine them.  Take, for instance, Aja Naomi King, who plays the slave Cherry Nat convinces Samuel to buy to save her from a worse fate, and later marries.  Gabrielle Union plays Esther, another married slave on the Turner plantation, and her time on screen in brief but memorable in the most heart-breaking way.

There are multiple issues with story and character development that the film fails to overcome, however.  “The Birth of a Nation” is a strong film, don’t get me wrong; it’s excruciating to watch the physical tortures the slaves go through, while Nat is simultaneously mentally tortured by what he witnesses.  His progression from obedience and willingness to doubt to rebellion happens perhaps a tad too quickly, but it’s still mostly believable thanks to Parker’s performance; for much of the film all we need are his expressions to know what Nat is feeling.  But the story feels like it’s lacking in so many areas, like character motivations.  For instance, as a preacher religion plays a major role in Nat’s life, and it’s evident that when he organizes the rebellion at the end, that he believes he is utterly right in what he is doing, despite the fact that he is killing defenseless people.  Parker practically knocks us over the head with the religious symbolism, but more explanation as to why this very devout and previously peaceful man felt that a violent uprising was the way to go is needed.

the-birth-of-a-nation-2
Samuel (Armie Hammer) and Nat Turner (Nate Parker)

The film also could have been more powerful had the relationship between Nat and Samuel been explored further.  We see that they played together as children, and apparently have an amicable relationship as adults (until Samuel’s character changes as his financial situation deepens).  But more scenes of them interacting could have gotten at the true nature of their relationship and just how deep it was or wasn’t, and would have made the final confrontation between the two so much stronger.

Then there are the issues concerning historical accuracy.  No narrative film based on true events is going to stick exactly to the facts, nor would we expect them to.  But while Parker displays the murder of adult male slave owners in his film, he completely omits the fact that Parker and his followers also killed women and children.  It’s like he was trying his hardest to portray Nat as the most heroic figure possible, even if that meant neglecting to question his actions.

The other glaring problem with the film’s historical accuracy ties into the controversy involving Parker’s personal life that has overshadowed most discussions regarding “The Birth of a Nation.”  In 1999, Parker and the film’s co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin were accused of raping a female student.  While Parker was acquitted and Celestin’s conviction was later overturned, the resurfacing of the story and Parker’s subsequent response to it have prompted a lot of conversation as to whether or not the film should—or even could—be appreciated without taking Parker’s personal affairs into account.  But matters are complicated further by Parker’s inclusion of a rape scene in “The Birth of a Nation” in which Cherry is attacked by a group of white men, an event that helps spur Nat to action—and an event that never took place in real life.  It’s a puzzling and somewhat disturbing contrast: the man who supposedly committed rape playing a man avenging a rape.

Perhaps “The Birth of a Nation” could have been the ground-breaking film it was meant to be under the guidance of a different filmmaker.  As it is, while it boasts a fascinating, powerful, and even timely story, as well as beautiful cinematography and editing, its celebration of violence in the message it conveys is off-putting, especially in the wake of such films as “12 Years a Slave,” which also realistically depicts the brutality of slavery in a manner that is more emotionally than visually gut-wrenching.  Parker was trying to reverse character roles from the 1915 “Birth of a Nation” and portray the slaves as the heroes and the slave owners as the villains, and he certainly did that.  But when it comes to reclaiming a title that encompasses such a huge and complicated era in American history, I’m not so sure that such an unambiguous portrayal of events does the trick.

Runtime: 120 minutes. Rated R.

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