Politically muddled and aesthetically and narratively banal, Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” fails to fulfill its many ambitions due to the fact that it feels less like a personal passion project, and more like a calculated and calibrated piece of off-Hollywood awards bait.
The film tells the story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a slave who, being taught how to read by his master’s wife (Esther Scott), learns the Bible and becomes a preacher for his fellow slaves at the plantation. The son of Turner’s master, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), decides it would be lucrative to loan out Turner to other slave owners, so that he might preach messages of submission and docility to his fellow slaves, and it is on these trips to other farms and plantations that Turner witnesses the depth and vastness of the evils of American slavery. This inspires him to lead a violent, 48-hour slave revolt, killing many white, slave-owning families across the southern countryside.
That is a brief synopsis that only gives a half-truth about Turner, or at least the character portrayed in the film (Nat from here on). The real Turner was motivated by racial oppression and religious fervor, but Nat has additional motivations: rape. The religious issue comes to play in the film and leads to an intriguing, but ultimately undercooked and one-sided exploration of the role religion plays in the lives of Americans, particularly amongst Black Americans. But the issue of sexual violence has no such promise or nuance, and reveals the ugly sexism and machismo at the heart of the film. Twice in the film, women close to Nat are the victims of rape. The first is his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) who is also beaten horrifically by the three white men who violate her. This leads Nat to swear revenge on the perpetrators, and sure enough in the final climactic battle sequence, Nat comes face-to-face with the villainous man who not only raped his wife, but has also tormented him since childhood. The second victim, Esther (Gabrielle Union), the wife of Nat’s friend, Isaac (Dwight Henry), is “given” to a visiting white man by Samuel. The moment is uncomfortably played from the perspective of the men involved. Esther is given no voice or say in the matter (Isaac refuses to “give” his wife to another man) and we mostly focus on the men’s reactions to the event. The most we ever see of Esther’s view is her exiting the house in tears after the assault has occurred.
These two scenes would have been troubling regardless, but become especially problematic in light of Parker’s college rape scandal while at Penn State in 1999, and with his poor handling of the controversy once it came to light. I feel comfortable calling Parker a repugnant misogynist and the film reflects these regressive attitudes. (Side note: Union, arguably the film’s most high profile actor, is given 2 minutes of screen time at best, and literally zero lines of dialogue. She has spoken out on the scandal, thankfully using her voice in ways she wasn’t allowed to in the film).
But these attitudes not only hinder the film for the obvious moral and political reasons, they also contradict and dilute the more positive point of the film. By centering on a historical narrative of African-Americans rebelling against systemic oppression, the film clearly draws parallels to the current Black Lives Matter movement and other protests against racial inequality, rightfully validating them and giving them a cinematic voice. But the film also purports a worldview where women, black women in particular, are subservient to men, are essentially men’s property and are only meant to provide motivation and support. The film voices a message of anti-racial oppression, while unintentionally voicing a contradictory message of pro-gender oppression. It’s hard to take seriously a film decrying the lack freedom for one group, while disregarding another group that suffers from the same. I wonder if Parker would approve of or make a movie about women similarly rising up violently against their male oppressors, like last year’s “Suffragette.” Something tells me he wouldn’t.
On top of all this, the film is utterly banal in its formal and narrative execution. Parker seems to only be concerned with the climactic revolt and its aftermath, and the drama and setup preceding those last 30-40 minutes of the film are sluggish and clichéd. You know “slavery drama” has become its own genre when there are films being made in such a way that historical evils and the day-to-day sufferings of slaves are twisted in to tropes, because it wouldn’t be a slave movie without a whipping scene, a “nice” slave owner contrasted with an “evil” one, liberal use of the N-word and the aforementioned rape of female slaves. I don’t mean to invalidate the horrors of slavery or films made about it, but when its treated as banal and commonplace as it is here, like its just another genre along with rom-coms, horror flicks, and superhero blockbusters, this type of narrative gets sucked into the Hollywood Industrial Complex and loses its artistry, its ability to speak to and deal with America’s original sin. Instead it becomes a collection of clichés that, once again, exploit Black Americans and the experiences of slaves for profit and prestige.
Additionally, if this was such a passion project for Parker, why do I feel no passion in its filmmaking? I saw few original, surprising shots and none that made any lasting impression. The cinematography is “pretty” but little else, the editing choppy to the point of incoherence in some spots, and the score conventional, with the expected mournful yet stirring string arrangements. All this adds up to a film that gestures towards being inspirational, but never actually gets there. It hits all the right notes, but it’s got no soul.
Nat Turner’s story is a fascinating and worthy one, and it’s especially important and relevant in these tumultuous times. It’s a story that undoubtedly needs to be told. Nate Parker was not the right person to tell it.