Yes. I do have a very strong opinion about Nate Parker and fully understand the controversy surrounding this film that he wrote, directed, and starred in. But I can put aside my thoughts and feelings on the person to both watch and critique his film without bias, because the story of Nat Turner is an interesting one. And it is a major part of American history that, like all of our country’s dirty lineage, deserves to be told.
Parker stars as Turner, a slave taught to read the Bible at a young age who grows up to become a preacher. When word gets out of a slave preacher, Turner’s master Samuel (Armie Hammer) begins making money escorting Nat throughout the south and using his preaching ability to tame slaves. Along his journey, Turner witnesses the harsh treatment of his people and eventually insights a rebellion.
It’s important with any historical film to do some homework. Movies always take certain liberties in order to change history to fit a 2 hour narrative. So fact checking The Birth of a Nation is as important as fact checking a Presidential debate. There are moments and characters thrown in simply for this story. An example of this is Jackie Earl Haley’s Raymond Cobb, a character that serves as a too convenient rival to Nat Turner almost solely for the purpose of a final cathartic adversary.
Regardless of the details changed or lacking in the film, the story is paced well and certainly doesn’t skimp on the discomforting brutality of the era, navigating the horrendous lives of slaves with gut wrenching fervor.There is lynching, whipping, rape (though it is never actually shown on screen), and the verbal degradation that too many Americans nowadays would like swept under the rug. Thus, it is an undeniably powerful and thought provoking film.
But I couldn’t help feeling like too much of the film was a reminder of the past, without actually delving deeper into the philosophies that created it as well as the crucial aftermath. The actions that followed the rebellion, such as legislation passed to limit the rights of even those blacks who were free, are reduced to an explanatory sentence at the end of the movie. The slave revolt itself, which was very tactical and well thought out by Nat Turner in actuality, is boggled down to a few scenes in the final act making it feel more like a compilation of poorly coordinated brawls. Most of the focus is placed on what led to Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion, but chances are anyone watching the film knows that slavery was horrible. We’ve seen it in films over and over again, so focusing on this aspect is a missed opportunity to show why these events mattered instead of just reaffirming that they happened.
Religion and it’s use to both condone slavery and keep slaves docile plays a pivotal role and is perhaps the biggest factor in making this film feel unique. But from a filmmaking standpoint, Parker’s direction at times tries to be a bit too artistic. There are random cuts of visions and shots of things like bleeding ears of corn that never truly feel well placed. So while Birth of a Nation is pertinent and full of solid performances, it isn’t as memorable as a film such as 12 Years a Slave. And that’s important. Because those who truly need to see the film will likely avoid it (and not because of Nate Parker). Those who understand it’s importance will be reminded of the country’s dark past, but not educated on it as much as they could’ve been.
FINAL GRADE: B-