The Birth of a Nation is not a subtle film. That should be obvious from its title, which is cribbed directly from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 classic (and incredibly racist) epic, which helped revitalize the Klu Klux Klan by painting them as the heroes, saving vulnerable women from the nefarious and lecherous blacks. More than 100 years later, and a decade in the making, Nate Parker’s breakout hit is about as much a rebuke of that narrative as a film can be.
Parker himself plays Nat Turner, the real-life slave and preacher in Southampton County Virginia who, fed up with white cruelty and oppression, led a small but violent rebellion against white slaveholders in 1831. His posse killed more than 60 people, and in retaliation slaveholders killed hundreds of slaves and hanged Turner in a very public execution in the hopes of preventing further insurrection.
Nation will probably draw lots of comparisons to the recent Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave, but the films are actually quite different. Steve McQueen told his slave story through a detached, historical, almost cold lens, but Parker’s vision is filled with barely suppressed seething rage, rage which boils over by film’s end. It’s a slow, vicious, unnerving burn, closer at times in tone to Tarantino’s Django Unchained than McQueen’s somber, stoic masterwork.
The other major distinction here is that Parker is not the polished storyteller that McQueen or John Ridley (screenwriter on 12 Years) are. This is Parker’s directorial and writing debut, and in many ways it shows. The first half or so of the film contains awkward pacing and distracting visual flourishes. This segment features flashbacks to Parker’s childhood before running ahead to his adult life. He lives at a plantation under the gentle ownership of Samuel Turner (an almost unrecognizable Armie Hammer, who does great work here). Turner lives with his mother and grandmother, and seems to be eking out a respectable existence as a slave (as much as can be expected, anyways). But he soon sees that not all slave owners are as magnanimous when he sees the damaged Cherry (Aja Naomi King) being put up for auction to a crowd of lecherous whites. He convinces Samuel to buy her as a present to his newly married sister, and soon a romance blossoms and Cherry and Nat are married.
But it’s not long before Turner, a man of deep abiding Christian faith, begins to make waves as a biblically literate and passionate preacher. He is soon asked to travel with Samuel to preach at plantations across the county. He soon realizes, however, that it’s not God’s love the slave owners want preached, but obedience to their masters. Their slaves are lazy and weak, they say, and they need some “divine encouragement” to keep them in line. Turner dutifully follows the rules, but, as he begins to witness the horrors at these neighboring plantations, his preaching begins to change. He reads his Bible and sees that, for every verse used to condone slavery, there’s at least another crying for freedom for all men. So he begins to preach grace and freedom in Christ, and this is something many folks, least of all Samuel, don’t like one bit.
The film is an undeniably Christian work, the most explicit mainstream film about faith since, probably, The Passion of the Christ. The script is absolutely saturated in scripture as Turner preaches and explores the line between God’s mercy and his judgment. This lends the film a great deal of emotional sincerity, and reveals a hard and fast condemnation of any man who would use God’s word to oppress and demean. Parker’s passion shines through here, and there is a ton of great conversation material here for both believer and non-believer alike.
Of course, all this material is building to something, and the set piece moment is the revolt itself. This is a tough film to chew on, filled with brutality and murky moral messages, and that uncomfortable conflict is driven home in the bloody finale. By most standards, it’s hard to say that Turner did the right thing. He killed people. Did God really condone his violence, as he was so convinced? I don’t have an answer to that question, and admitting that is somewhat terrifying. I’d like to retort that the Lord says vengeance is his and his alone. But, then again, I’ve never been a slave. How long can one hold onto that promise, knowing that he’ll likely never be free and never see the men who treated him so cruelly punished? Never has a film confronted me with such uncomfortable, but essential, questions.
That, I believe, is the theme of the film as a whole. Uncomfortable, but essential. Despite its pacing problems and occasional bombast, this is a ferocious, overwhelming and unsettling experience. Its dizzying cinematography creates an unpredictable rhythm, and Henry Jackman’s extraordinary score wisely contrasts somber spirituals with relentless African drumbeats. Turner’s intent is to take the horrid violence of slavery and shove our faces in it, forcing us to look upon it in all its horror.
Is The Birth of a Nation ultimately a stirring work of art or an awful, insensitive racial tirade? Is its ultimate message inspirational or intensely problematic? Can a film perhaps occupy so many polarities at once and still come out as a successful product? I can’t answer these questions, but I strongly encourage you to check out this remarkable film and decide for yourself.