I’ll be completely honest, before going to see The Birth Of A Nation I had no idea or knowledge of the controversy that has surrounded the life and career of Nate Parker. Had I been more educated on the star/writer/director’s previous actions and opinions, I may just have joined the significant boycott taking place around the picture’s release. Having said that, now that I have seen it, I will try my best to remove my opinion of external factors and judge the work with as little bias as I can, just as we have all done in the past with artists like Woody Allen, Michael Jackson and Roman Polanski.
The Birth Of A Nation is the first attempt at a cinematic telling of the story of Nat Turner, a Virginian black man born in to slavery in the 1800s who, after being taken in and educated buy his masters as a child then ordered back to the cotton fields, eventually uses his intelligence and talent for preaching to organise a slave revolt that led to the deaths of 50 – 60 white people along with over 200 deaths of both enslaved and free black people in a process of retaliation across the county. As a middle class, white British person, I always feel a level of uneasiness and self-conciousness when attempting to dissect and critique a story such as this, one that couldn’t be further from my levels of social and cultural comprehension, but what I can say is that whilst recognising that the historical tale of Nat Turner is one that is incredibly important and significant in the journey for emancipation and civil rights in the United States, I do know average filmmaking and execution when I see it, and I certainly see it in The Birth Of A Nation. In its unambitious dialogue and use of some slightly hokey techniques, the film feels incredibly televisual, perhaps best suited to the small screen instead of the big screen. For a film about something as extraordinary as the life and times of Nat Turner, the most remarkable thing about the picture is just how unremarkable it really is. It seems almost an insult to admit that I, at times, became bored watching a film about the inhumanity of slavery, but the way that the picture drifts from one set piece to another without doing nearly as much character development as is needed doesn’t allow the audience to engage with the horrors on screen in a way that, for example, 12 Years A Slave does. And let’s be clear, there are certainly horrors to be seen. From a young white girl happily pulling her small slave companion around by a rope collar to the brutal whipping that Nat himself receives upon his first foray in to disobedience, the film effectively displays the unimaginable cruelty that used to be the norm in the American South on a visual level, but one can’t help but feel that the filmmakers missed out on adding as much emotional depth as they could have.
On a more positive note, the final third of the film does come to life and shows audiences something that they have never quite seen before in film in this historical context outside of the heightened reality of something like Django Unchained. Reenactment of the slave revolt provides briefly cathartic if not ultimately problematic relief for the audience, but anyone who knows the outcome of the real story will recognise that this is not a picture that will leave you feeling inspired or elated, it is much more a case of giving audiences a look not at one of the triumphant examples of numerous films that depict the end of slavery or other positive historical milestones, it is a look at a moment in time that, whilst fleeting and arguably unsuccessful, came to stand for something more than itself and galvanised future civil rights fighters and campaigners to continue their journeys.
What Nate Parker has done in The Birth Of A Nation feels very much like what Mel Gibson did in Braveheart. As the star of the film and the man with creative control, it definitely feels at times like Parker has been self indulgent and pushed his own presence at the expense of the character development of his co-stars, and this leaves the film feeling somewhat unbalanced. Though he gives a solid enough performance as Nat Turner, particularly mastering the dominant physicality of a confident, intelligent preacher, where Parker falls down is in his limited ability to strike chemistry with those around him, particularly Aja Naomi King who gives a memorable if slightly underdeveloped performance as his wife Cherry. Special mention goes to Penelope Ann Miller who gives a rather haunting performance as lady of the ‘big house’ Elizabeth Turner, the only white character in the entire film who doesn’t feel like a cardboard cutout stereotypical Virginia plantation dweller of the 1800s. Sadly, Miller is able to show more character development with little screen time than many of the most important black characters in the narrative, and that, I believe, is a fault in the direction and another consequence of Parker’s choice to concentrate on his own character and performance.
Overall, The Birth Of A Nation is a film that tells a truly important story, but unfortunately it has been told by the wrong person and potentially at the wrong time. Hype for this movie started up in the midst of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, and ultimately I think that it was put on a pedestal that it didn’t quite deserve, possibly feeling like an even greater disappointment because of the high expectations that came with it. Even without the controversy surrounding Nate Parker, the simple fact of the matter is that the film does not do it’s subject matter justice, feeling much more like a personal vanity project and vehicle than a tribute to a remarkable and significant event in history.