Nate Parker’s debut feature, “The Birth of a Nation,” owes a great deal of its storytelling, its brute force and its blood-boiling injustice to Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart.” “I love the comparison,” Parker told Alex Billington of firstshowing.net, after Parker’s Sundance Film Festival triumph in January. “The humanity (Gibson) brought to it inspired me.” It’s a solid bet: If you admired the righteous brutality of Gibson’s film, then you’ll likely be gripped by much of Parker’s.
I’ve been wrestling with my problems with “The Birth of a Nation,” a powerful, flawed picture, for weeks now. It’s a tremendous piece of American history. The story belongs to the ages. The film’s reputation and reception, however, may have peaked with Sundance.
In August 1831 the enslaved preacher Nat Turner led an armed revolt in Southampton County, Va., freeing dozens of fellow slaves and killing dozens of white men, women and children in a two-day melee. Turner eluded capture for weeks after the short-lived rebellion, popularly known as “Nat’s Fray” and “Old Nat’s War.”
The publication of “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” reportedly the imprisoned Turner’s version of events as told to the physician Thomas R. Gray, set certain ideas in literary stone regarding the revolutionary. From birth, he was considered a chosen one by his people, subject to visions; Turner waited for a sign from God to lead the oppressed and chained out of bondage and into the fire.
Parker’s film aims to erase all traces of zealotry or fanaticism from Turner’s image, and to humanize and Hollywood-ize the Turner myth. In Parker’s own screenplay, the man is never just a man; he is freedom incarnate. The film takes its title from the notorious, Klan-friendly 1915 D.W. Griffith monument to white supremacy and (problematically) stunning cinematic wiles. Parker’s “Birth” argues that the real America, the one still very much in bloody progress, is a nation built on the necessary righting of grievous institutional wrongs.
Now: How does this play out in story terms? As played by writer-director Parker, Turner is a genial, relatable firebrand, a man of his time but very much out ahead of it, divinely inspired at every step. The most effective element of “The Birth of a Nation” is its middle section, where the grueling daily facts of life under slavery gradually send Turner into action. As a preacher for hire (Armie Hammer plays his cash-strapped owner, who profits from Turner’s oratorical gifts) Turner witnesses one atrocity after another. On a neighboring plantation where he’s to placate the slaves, Turner watches as a slave’s teeth are methodically hammered out of his mouth as punishment for a hunger strike. Later, the rape of Turner’s wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), demands an eye for an eye, as does a second rape, that of the wife (Gabrielle Union) of Turner’s insurrectionist friend (Colman Domingo). In a key scene, Parker comforts his miserably disfigured wife after the assault. When the camera starts drifting away from her and toward him, you think: Really? This moment belongs to you, too?
With any retelling of this American history, it’s not difficult to stoke an audience’s desire for vengeful justice. Parts of “The Birth of a Nation” are bluntly effective and beautifully acted, though one of the drawbacks, ironically, is Parker’s own performance. Even the rape victims of the screenplay have a hard time getting their fair share of the screen time; everything in the story, by design, keeps the focus and the anguished close-ups strictly on Parker. He’s a good actor, but not much of a director; the visual style and approach of “The Birth of a Nation” tries a little of everything, and often too much of everything. There is, however, an inspired leap forward, well realized, when the film needs it most: Without giving it away, the movie imagines an epilogue, brief and sharp, 30 years into America’s future.
It’s not the only leap forward. “They’re killing people everywhere for no reason at all but being black,” says King’s character, as the retaliatory mass killings commence. This speaks directly to our own time in Ferguson, Tulsa, Chicago, you name it. The movie has another contemporary overlay it can’t shake, one that has hindered Parker’s newly ascendant career. The writer, director and actor may have been acquitted on 1999 Penn State rape charges, but as he told Ebony magazine, his notion of “consent” was still very much in progress at the time. Parker’s wrestling teammate, Jean Celestin, was found guilty of rape, but the conviction was ultimately overturned. Celestin receives story credit on “The Birth of a Nation.”
This is a film review, not a referendum on a rape case. “The Birth of a Nation” is rarely dull and Parker’s chosen tactic of going the full Mel Gibson whenever possible yields results. But the “Braveheart” rule applies. Quite apart from his Christian beliefs, Parker sees the Nat Turner story as righteous wrath, straight, no chaser, not much characterization. Very likely, the real Turner was a more unruly, contradictory and human figure than the icon at the center of things here.
“BIRTH OF A NATION”
2.5 out of 4 stars
MPAA rating: R (for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity)
Running time: 2:00
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