Nate Parker is the writer, director, producer, and star of The Birth of a Nation, the film with the same name as the 1915 silent film which is known for its innovation in cinematography techniques which influences the way films are made to this day, but is also known for its racist and terribly offensive story line which portrays the Ku Klux Klan as heroes who made America a great country, Abraham Lincoln as a villain, and free black men as degenerates. In telling the story of the great slave revolt of 1831, Nate Parker is obviously using the name ironically, but a little of the irony falls off on him because while the story is important and a strong condemnation of racism and the culture which encourages it, it also isn’t too terribly innovative in its more technical aspects.
The Birth of a Nation is first and foremost impassioned, most often in a good way but sometimes to the point of melodrama. A series of events that led to a man gathering together a group of slaves to kill slave owners is little more than a slasher movie without the context of how Nat Turner was brought to that point, and that means many emotional scenes, some positive, some negative – many negative, and while many, especially those early on are quite intelligent and insightful, the longer the film goes on the more it begins to rely on cliche’s and cheap emotional tricks. Some of my favorite scenes show how the idea of owning another human being was so normative during this period that even those we were most empathetic to took it for granted, its quite powerful to find yourself really liking a particular character then have that character get excited when an person is bought for them as a gift and its just taken for granted by everyone. But, later, we get into the stereotypical scenes in a slave era film, the whippings, the white man standing over a kneeling black man snarling and showing teeth, and the like. We’ve seen the brutality in film after film before this, it’s not shocking because we’ve been grappling with it for years already, it’s seeing the normalization of people being seen as possessions that creates the shocks, and while those scenes give the film its power, there aren’t enough of them.
Along with the evils of treating people like objects , another powerful theme throughout the movie, and the one that is handled more intelligently, is a look at how religion can be used to control and to justify any cause. The Bible ends up becoming a major focal point in The Birth of a Nation and nearly every action undertaken by the central characters is either motivated by or justified with Christian faith. This element in the script is handled quite deftly, never attacking the religion itself nor its followers, but merely showing how easily people can be manipulated by the offer of eternal reward and how any action whether good or evil can be rationalized using the Bible as a reference.
Parker obviously knows his way around a camera, but at least here never shows himself to be a true auteur. Scenes are framed well and there is little to no cheating going on with perspective during action scenes or otherwise. However, there is also not a whole lot going on in the way of true creativity. Some scenes here and there are quite beautiful, but not often enough to definitively determine whether the beauty comes naturally or from camerawork. What we see on display is definitely proficiency, but only the rudiments of artistry.
The acting is much like the camerawork. The performances here show no weakness, but also don’t give us anything beyond the storytelling. It’s obvious the actors understand their characters, but it’s rare that they truly embody them. It may be a mistake for Parker to have directed himself, in fact, as his performance is the one that glues everything together, and is in many ways the most all over the place. There are scenes in which he absolutely commands attention with a powerful charisma and others where he gives in to overacting. He does his best to direct others, though, as his own performance is the most inconsistent. The other actors range from professional to quite good, though there are no award contenders to be seen here.
The writing on display here is also a little on the inconsistent side. We have some great dialogue, fresh ways of looking at how slavery demeaned an entire people with consequences that last to this day, a smart look at how religion is used to control, and many very real, three dimensional characters. However, we also have a script that devolves into cliche and “been there, seen that” more and more as the story goes on, characters that defy motivation and take actions that seemingly come out of nowhere just to move the plot along, and questionable omissions from the true story, both because they could make the themes of people being pushed to the limit even more interesting and sully the legacy of Nat Turner and his fellow slaves by turning them into something they weren’t for either dramatic effect or false empathy.
The Birth of a Nation is a very good film, and at times, an important film. I recommend it, but not wholeheartedly both because it has some very serious flaws, and because it could have been more. It looks to me like Nate Parker either didn’t have faith in his original vision, or he didn’t know how to follow up his story’s brilliant beginnings with equally brilliant follow through. What could have been a really thoughtful and razor sharp look at the evils of cultural normalizations, the long term effects of the degradation of an entire people, and both the positives and negatives of religion and its control of entire groups unfortunately becomes a story that relies on dramatics and cheap emotional manipulation. There is no doubt that The Birth of a Nation is a tense and passionate story, but you can see even as you’re watching it that it had the potential to be so much more.
Rating: 6.0 out of 10