“You listen to him and you might just make it into heaven.”
Courage. Wisdom. Vision. These are the traits a young Nat Turner is told he possesses long before serving as the provocateur and leader of an 1831 slave rebellion. Resulting in the deaths of approximately 60 white slave owners, the tally was the peak of the uprising. And yet to think that another 32 years of struggle and hardship and oppression went by until Lincoln’s passing of The Emancipation Proclamation seems absurd. Life was slower in those days – time a construct set to the sun and the moon instead of an always ticking clock – and so too was, apparently, the willingness to institute necessary social change. The Birth of a Nation goes for a fever dream narrative structure and falls short. It values imagery over heart to heart connection. There’s no commitment to a single tone. The message is as impactful as it is frustratingly oblique. And yet it lingers.
The Birth of a Nation works better as a commemorative, often damning painting than it does as an overall movie. Imagine a museum full of exhibits, all different and dissonant, no running themes or knots tied between the bleeding spaces. They’re lovely and interesting but have mountains in between them with striking faces that look and feel unclimable. You could even call the film a telegram. Act 1, STOP; Act 2, STOP; Act 3, FULL STOP. It presses the pedal to the floor and coasts along before slamming the brakes. However, despite being so minor and so insignificant in so many places, the film should still be viewed on the big screen so that big issues can be seen front and center. About 3/4 of the movie is poorly sold, like a door to door peddler expecting to be turned down. The remaining 1/4 intermediates a nearly undefinable struggle, and the images ash an imprint.
Nat starts as a child, gifted by the Lord with the ability to read, further taught by his owner’s wife. He’s groomed to be a preacher but deemed best suited for the cotton fields. And so the boy becomes Nat the man (Nate Parker). Preaching the Bible is his word, which becomes his bond to his friend Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), taking over the estate after the passing of his father. These are hard times for white proprietors of small land parcels. There is drought and talks of insurrection transpiring between plantations. Samuel is afforded a unique opportunity though; whites want to squash the unrest from the Negros, and they’ll pay top dollar to have an educated erudite provide counsel. This is where The Birth of a Nation finds a short grip on its story. Nat must choose between sacrificing his comfortable relationship with Samuel by spouting lies to his lineage or being a voice for his voiceless brethren. These moments certainly proselytize with great power and conviction, but come too few and far between.
I still stand undecided as to what type of movie this is supposed to be. A historical biopic following Nat’s pivotal role? A fateful drama about the lost friendship between him and Samuel? Or is it a fully fledged romance circling the mannered love between Nat and Cherry (Aja Naomi King)? First time director Nate Parker has crafted – quite meticulously – a stunning debut feature. To look at this film is to behold all of its best attributes. That being said, what he lacks is the subtlety of the subtext he so obviously wants to promote to eye level, and he reaches too high and too low to get where we can be caught up in the movie’s broad sweeping motion. Parker’s take on Turner’s story, at its worst, is an imperfect and pretentious account of real life events. You can’t overcome the issues it has on a basic storytelling level. But where The Birth of a Nation succeeds – briefly, and quite unforgettably – is in its uncompromising stance on issues still at play in our political and social pools. Numerous blacks hung to Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit.” Turner being bludgeoned, disparaged, spat upon by a 19th century Trump rally as he approaches his lynching. The whipping and raping and hating. While far from a great film, it is an important one, entirely because it knows when to linger in the hurt and the pain and its perfectly executed sense of helplessness. I felt the film’s tedium far too often, yet was nevertheless overwhelmed and moved by its incredibly inherent sense of defiant decency. Hate this infectious can only beget further hate. For that reason, The Birth of a Nation demands to be seen without commanding to be unforgotten.
“Leave this to the Lord.”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5