At the Sundance Film Festival in January, Fox Searchlight bought the rights to “The Birth of a Nation” for a whopping $17.5 million. This is the higher than any film bought in the festival’s history. The film, which received a standing ovation and an emotional reception at the festival, was initially met with praise. But lately the talk surrounding the film has been largely devoted to Nate Parker’s sexual assault accusation from back in his college days. This kind of drama happens every year when awards season hits. Sometimes, it can make or break a film’s chances at being nominated for anything. But, in watching the film, all of these details must be swept aside. And although “The Birth of a Nation” is pretty good, it doesn’t reach a resounding culmination in the way that, say, “12 Years a Slave” does.
Nat Turner (Nate Parker) is a slave in Southampton County, Virginia. Raised on a plantation run by Benjamin Turner, Nat’s father runs for his life one night after an altercation with a few white men in the woods, leaving Nat to be raised by his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and grandmother (Esther Scott). The plantation owners allowed Nat to be versed in reading and writing, and Nat immediately took to the bible and its scripture. Being one of the only two preachers in the area, Nat was used by Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), the new plantation owner and master, to go around and preach to the other slaves. It was meant to raise their spirits, mostly so the slave owners didn’t have to deal with disobedience. All the while, Samuel is making some extra money on the side to help get him out of debt.
Nat, who usually stayed on the plantation, was now becoming even more aware of the foul treatment of his people throughout the country. Though more subtly alluded to, Turner also had visions. Visions he later perceived as signs from God. There is a very powerful scene when Turner is quoting scripture to a group of slaves and he struggles to give them hope when he sees the state they’re in. He then begins to use the various psalms to portray the contradictions in the text that, while at the same time ask for obedience, they also ask for freedom. This is when the first sparks of rebellion, which ultimately led to a 48-hour revolt in 1831, is truly lit.
It’s hard to go into a film that’s as hyped as this one and not have any expectations. But, as always, I try and mute my brain while watching with fresh eyes. Nate Parker, serving as the film’s director, star, and writer, gradually builds the tension before it explodes into the chaos of physical fighting. “The Birth of a Nation” is blatant in its message with a generally solid point of view. There is power in words spoken and in its images. Because as much as many like to go on about the hardships of slavery, Abraham Lincoln’s role in the emancipation of the slaves, and so forth, it’s an entirely different thing to witness the struggle and atrocities with your own eyes onscreen. And to witness it from the victim’s perspective is also more powerful than witnessing it from the white man’s perspective.
Having said that, “The Birth of a Nation” isn’t without its faults. For one thing, it’s skewed too much in the perspective of Turner so that every other major character feels one dimensional. Even the characters involved in the rebellion don’t get enough active screen time and all of it is only used to prop up Turner and his role. An example of this is in the severe beating of Cherry (Aja Naomi King), Turner’s wife, by local men; and then the rape of the wife, Nancy (Gabrielle Union), of another slave on the plantation. Both of these events feed into Turner’s reasons, but with all the injustices and cruelty of the time, an extra load that reduces women to plot devices isn’t particularly required.
The only other semi-developed character in the film is Armie Hammer’s Samuel. As children, Samuel and Nat played together. As adults, although there is obviously the master/slave dynamic, there is still a hint of something else. But at the end of the day, Turner’s biggest lesson learned is that it doesn’t matter if your master treats you a smidgen better than others treat their slaves. Samuel still owned Turner and the punishment Samuel ultimately brings down upon Turner for his disobedience and defiance is the final straw before the rebellion. “The Birth of a Nation” most definitely has its strong moments, and when it does, it can shine. But at times, it’s weighted down by the non-development of those closest to Turner; this also, in turn, lessens the film’s emotional impact.
"The Birth of a Nation" most definitely has its strong moments, but at times can be weighted down by the non-development of those closest to Turner; which also, in turn, lessens the emotional impact.