It’s rare that a single word accurately describes an entire movie. But in the case of The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s dramatic reenactment of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion, one word keeps springing to mind: raw. And I mean raw in damn near every sense I can.
Subject matter wise, this story is brutal, devastating, and exceedingly poignant, like a raw, exposed nerve connected directly to central nervous system of modern American society. Visceral and passionate, wearing emotion and conviction defiantly on its sleeve, the intensity and energy are undeniable. It’s as much comment on the racial violence that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement and entitled rape culture as it is historical period piece.
On the other hand, as Parker’s feature length debut as both writer and director, it’s readily apparent that, while full of promise and vision, The Birth of a Nation is the work of raw filmmaker and storyteller. Though sharp and electric at times, the pace often plods, most of the villains are one-note cackling cartoons, and the script struggles to find deeper meaning below the surface violence. And while it tells a powerful tale, it tells a powerful tale in an expected, straightforward, rudimentary way—the narrative progression unfolds in standard form, with a few ill-advised, overly symbolic dream sequences thrown in that feel very first-year film school. Then again, it’s obvious narrative pyrotechnics aren’t The Birth of a Nation’s primary concern, and Parker’s fire and fervor burn through.
Prophesized from a young age to be special, to be someone to listen to, young slave Nat Turner (Parker) grows up to preach the gospel in the rundown church on his Virginia plantation. Having fallen on hard times, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), the plantation owner and Nat’s childhood playmate, rents out the man-of-god’s services to surrounding farmers looking for biblical backing to quell unrest and rebellion amongst their own slaves. On the road, Nat bears witness to all manner of atrocities, including a gruesome force feeding—an act of savagery made all the more unnerving for the casual manner in which it’s perpetrated—the same time as he preaches obedience. Usually on the verge of weeping, static shots of Nat’s tear-filled eyes blast across the screen as he extolls the virtue of subservience under the whip.
From the perspective of the oppressed, The Birth of a Nation tells a story about people with no agency, no control over their lives. Even during Nat’s childhood, when the plantation mistress (Penelope Anne Miller) decides the boy’s gift for reading must be nurtured, she moves him to the main house, ripping him from his family. It’s a clueless move, as indicative of the entrenched system and the way slaves were viewed—as property, things rather than people—as any act of physical violence. Even as Nat’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) weeps and has to be restrained, this woman never gives a thought to the fact that she’s tearing apart a family.
Nonchalant brutality lays on the other end of the spectrum from this oblivious indifference. Borderline caricature white antagonists (especially Jackie Earle Haley, who gives a performance that could have been lifted from Blazing Saddles) beat and bludgeon slaves for the slightest offense. Again, they have no control over their bodies or lives, which goes double for the women. Gabrielle Union doesn’t say a word, but her Esther devastates when she’s brought in and given to one of Samuel’s drunken, lecherous guests. And the brutal gang rape of his wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), serves as the inciting spark for Nat. A generations-long slow build, when a people are so long repressed violently, violence becomes the only response.
As timely as The Birth of a Nation is, it’s also a movie driven by ego and in love with it’s own purported importance. Nate Parker’s ego hovers above the entire picture, and he continually frames his character as a messiah figure, posing like Jesus at every opportunity. (This isn’t entirely Parker’s invention. Before he was hung, the real Nat Turner was asked if he thought he made a mistake, to which he replied, “Was not Christ crucified?”) It doesn’t help matters that Nat is the only character, black or white, with any depth or texture. Samuel almost gets there, at times showing his distaste and unease with the ubiquitous system that also confines him, but the film ultimately eschews this for other concerns and any arc cuts off stunted. Everyone else falls into one or another category of stock character.
For all of its flaws—exasperating and wearying at times—The Birth of a Nation is one hell of a debut. The sheer power and passion overwhelm. On an artistic spectrum, it’s more hardcore than classical music; a primal explosion of rage more than finely tuned craftsmanship. Unpolished and ferocious, it seethes and pummels unapologetically, the kind of movie that engenders a visceral, gut-level reaction.
Outside the confines of the movie, this has been a fascinating story to watch unfold. The Birth of a Nation blew the doors off Sundance back in January, sparked a bidding war, and raked in a festival record $17.5 million sale. Topical and weighty, Fox Searchlight positioned it for a big Oscar push, and it appeared primed to collect a haul of award season hardware. Then the sexual assault allegations against Nate Parker and co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin surfaced—not a secret, Parker addressed them before while promoting earlier films, but never with this kind of focus and spotlight—and the narrative changed.
On a purely cinematic level, this doesn’t lessen the impact of the picture, but movies don’t exist in a vacuum. And given the context—especially as the rape scene that spurs Nat Turner to action, and that sets him up as an avenging angel of sexual assault, is reportedly a total fabrication—it leaves an icky sensation.
Then again, so does the savagery, the offhand violence, and pervasive racism that’s all too eerily prescient. On no level and in no realm is The Birth of a Nation an easy watch, and there exists little room for casual viewing comfort. Reaction is going to depend a great deal on whether or not people can, or are willing to separate the art from the artist.
Definitely a first movie, Parker boasts both fervor and promise, and whatever happens, The Birth of a Nation could be the impetus to a number of hard, increasingly vital conversations we need to have, both those it intended and otherwise.