The Birth of a Nation arrives as a tangle of controversy and hype, a movie glowing faintly from within.
Nate Parker's telling of Nat Turner's slave rebellion debuted to an ecstatic reception (and Oscar buzz) at this year's Sundance Film Festival. In the months since, Parker has been haunted by sexual assault allegations from his past. Rape culture, police brutality, Black Lives Matter – all these issues seem to intersect with the film and its creator in a jumble that's difficult to parse. But if any aspect of The Birth of a Nation survives the controversy in a lasting way, it may be the impact of its title.
Sharing a name with D.W. Griffith's 1915 silent film – famous as a landmark in filmmaking technique, infamous for its exaltation of the Ku Klux Klan – provides a built-in dose of scandalous buzz. But it also presents an opportunity to revise a piece of our collective culture. Perhaps when future generations hear “The Birth of a Nation,” they won't think of white-hooded horsemen, or white actors in blackface – instead, they'll think of a film from the slaves' perspective, where slaves stand up against their white oppressors. In our current social climate, this ambition carries a poignant weight; it feels like a necessary step.
But when viewing The Birth of a Nation on its own merits, the hype and controversy seem to cancel each other out. It's like glimpsing inside Pulp Fiction's famous glowing briefcase, only to find a pretty, but amateurish landscape painting – something to be admired, but not treasured. And if The Birth of a Nation (2016) fails to eclipse The Birth of a Nation (1915), it may be because Nate Parker – an ambitious young director whose personal demons threaten to overshadow his noble bid to reconfigure history – is a more compelling dramatic figure than the Nat Turner of his film.
As a boy, Nat Turner (Tony Espinosa) is anointed in a tribal naming ceremony. His elders declare him special and wise, someone his people will follow – a prophet. Nat is special, indeed; his mistress (Penelope Ann Miller) notices his a gift for reading and takes him into the house for lessons, with the Bible as their primary text. As a grown man (now Nate Parker) who can read and write, Nat still works the fields, but also serves as preacher to his plantation's slaves. Other farmers find utility in Nat's preaching, for the pacifying effect it seems to have on the workforce, so his master Samuel (Armie Hammer) – once his childhood companion – hires out Nat's services to neighboring plantations. Samuel is a comparatively kind master, but Nat's travels expose him to far more brutal conditions. Nat begins to feel he might better serve his fellow slaves by preaching wrath and vengeance, and when people close to him are sexually assaulted – including his wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King) – he vows to incite a rebellion, compelled by what he believes are visions from God.
The Birth of a Nation is hampered by this single-minded religious angle. Framing Nat Turner as a born prophet, destined to visit God's wrath upon the evils of slavery, may seem powerful – ut this undermines his agency as a flesh-and-blood person. Any slave would have reason to rebel, but Turner's own compelling motivations – avenging the rape of his wife, or atonement for using the Bible to serve slave owners – take a back seat to his mission as a prophet. Turner feels less like a character responding to his circumstances, and more like a symbol marching toward martyrdom, a vehicle through which to showcase the horrors of slavery. He undoubtedly suffers, but it's a sign from God which ultimately compels him to take a sword from his master's mantle and start swinging.
This scene – ostensibly the start of the rebellion – illustrates how Nate Parker fails to imbue his central character with a convincing inner life, as both an actor and director. We see Nat Turner calmly take up his sword, murder a man he knows, and watch him die; the film immediately cuts to Turner vomiting behind the house. It's a clumsy shoehorning of internal conflict that would be unneeded with a more dimensional performance.
When the rebellion begins in earnest, its tone wavers strangely between religious reverence and something closer to Django Unchained. Turner might be enacting God's plan, but there's no question some of his followers simply want their bloody revenge. Justifiably so, but Henry Jackman's noble, pastoral score feels out of place over images of strangling and beheading, as if instructing us to focus on Nat Turner's righteousness at the expense of all the arguably exploitative violence onscreen. The Birth of a Nation tries to have it both ways, but neither perspective quite resonates.
The film's first two-thirds work best as a frank portrait of the Antebellum South. 1830's Virginia is convincingly recreated, and the cinematography emphasizes the natural beauty of the slaves' surroundings – twilight vistas of cotton fields, ancient oaks covered in hanging Spanish moss – presenting slavery as a corruption of Paradise. At times The Birth of a Nation does feel energized and vital, such as Nat's courtship of Cherry, which culminates in a potent thematic image: Nat and Cherry prepare to consummate their marriage, two candles between them melting into each other, their flames burning as one.
As a debut film from Nate Parker, The Birth of a Nation is promising and problematic, bold but superficial. As a statement that resonates with the times and reclaims a piece of racial culture's past, The Birth of a Nation does hold some power, even if it fails to transcend its own headlines.