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There are few films that gain such notoriety even before they are widely released. Birth of a Nation is one of only a few films that have had such a polarizing effect in the cinematic world. This was more than enough to pique my interest, and I will admit that I was anxious to see this film as soon as possible. Little did I know that what I would witness in the next two hours would also inspire me to action, but not in the way Nate Parker and his passion project had intended.
The powerful iconography sears into the mind and provides powerful metaphors for the audience, but also brings into question the protagonist’s mental state. Birth of a Nation may be based on some of the real events in Nat Turner’s life, but narratively it comes off more like your typical martyrdom tale, much like Joan of Arc’s. Just replace the hardships of being a woman in 1400’s France with the terrible plight of being a black man in America during the 1800’s. Both of them felt some sort of religious calling that stemmed from a complete immersion into their religious doctrine. Both had visions that they interpreted as a divine call to action against their oppressors. They both led armies in the name of revolution, but only one of them was successful. In the end, they were both were tried as criminals and put to death in horrible ways. Only Joan of Arc helped free her country and achieved the level of sainthood.
In trying to stand out from the shadow of other films about slavery, Parker takes a very conventional approach in his technique. The storytelling is scattered, as though Parker is unsure of exactly the message he wants to send through his vanity project. Parker is undeniably the focus of every aspect of this film and his self-serving approach to every other character comes off as an obvious attempt at using them as a way to boost his profile in the film. Most of the secondary characters feel so haphazardly developed that when they are unceremoniously thrust into a scene with no prior reference, we can’t help but feel like we’ve missed something. They come off as empty shells of people that serve nothing more than a supporting army for Parker and his character’s quest.
As a director, Parker has a clear idea of the visual aesthetic he wants the film to have. That includes scenes with mostly natural lighting and dream sequences that blend both the religious aspects and early African roots of Nat Turner. He is wildly successful when it comes to this respect, but visuals weren’t enough to save this film from the myriad of other problems this film faced. The uneven pacing creates a lull halfway through the film, diminishing the momentum created by the first act of the film in exchange for strengthening the film’s bloody climax in its third act. Unfortunately, the loss of steam leading up to the climax turned this easy knockout into more of a jab. Still strong, but nowhere near as powerful as it needs to be.
Birth of a Nation’s tone and pacing problems weren’t the only problems that kept the film from reaching the searing emotional apex that it could have easily reached. The problem was restrained and filtered the film came off emotionally. Parker tried adding emotional profundity with the fictional rape and abuse scenes, which he and his co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin should be the last people fabricating anything about considering their pasts. In an attempt to infuse a deeper atmosphere of pathos in the film, Parker creates these rape scenarios but doesn’t brutalize them enough to show the true scope of the atrocities of that time in history. The film could have benefited from showing the unrestrained barbarism of the white man. Instead, Parker and Celestin decide to tone down some of the brutality, but that only helped to mute the film’s overall sentiment. If Parker and Celestin were going to take the route of emotional manipulation through rape, they could have at least focused on the victim instead of using their pain as a way to add emotional depth to Parker’s character. Fictionalizing a character’s rape is bad enough, but using it only as a vehicle to enhance the male character is disgusting.
The most problematic part of the entire film is how poorly they tow the line between murderer and martyr. Parker has clearly tried to turn Nat Turner’s story into a hero film when he should have gone the more complex route of exploring his anti-hero actions. That means that this film rings out with sanctimonious self-righteousness, but doesn’t end up earning any of it. Parker will continue to use his character to tell you why he is the hero of this film, but often contradicts himself when it comes to the theology and reasoning. The Bible was the only book Turner was allowed to read and could quote it from memory. In fact, later in the film, he comes to the realization that his religion is being used to justify the inhumane treatment of black people. There is a wonderfully short-lived moment in the film when Turner has a scripture-off with the local clergyman and they each aggressively throw each Biblical quotes to support their stances. They are both right but also so very wrong. Parker would like us to praise Turner for the self-same religious hypocrisy that was used to subserviate black Americans. Just like any other war-monger that uses the purity of religion to justify their own heinous acts, Turner preaches much more than he practices. “It is mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them.”
Birth of a Nation undeniably is all about Nate Parker, and all of the film’s spotlight pays off when it comes to his performance. Every element in the film is used to accentuate Turner’s importance and Parker does the character justice. The passion he has for this project is evident to anyone who watches it. He plays Turner with the same immovable conviction the character is known for. His performance is strengthened by having a great ally in Colman Domingo and an even greater villain Jackie Earle Haley. As I mentioned before, the focus of the film was unwaveringly on Turner, which turned most of the secondary characters into nothing but emotional fodder.
As a historical lesson, Birth of a Nation offers no teachable moments beyond being a cautionary tale about what happens when a group of people, who continue to face daily injustices, reach a boiling point. It echoes the idea of a race war, and in a way even encourages it through his cinematic hero-worship. As much as I would rather social change was reached through purely peaceful methods, I understand the realistic need for more aggressive tactics. The film, like every contemporary film about slavery, serves as a reminder of the injustices of the past and how they still exist in the present. Nate Parker doesn’t offer any new solutions as much as he is issuing a threat. In a surprising twist, I felt more of a positive, progressive take on our current racial crisis in the story of a fictional comic book character, Luke Cage. You’ll gain a greater grasp of the true racial divide and a worthy role model with a fictional superhero in a one-hour episode of Luke Cage than you could ever hope to get out of the two-hour, self-indulgent Birth of a Nation. A story of a person who survives violence and comes out of it morally unbroken will always be stronger than the story of a person who succumbs and perpetuates violence.