The hell of plantation life for black slaves is darkly documented in Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, a riled, roaring biopic that’s moving at times and middling at many others. Even the title is a fiery indictment of America’s brutal past, an ironic jab at the country’s upbringing and a satirical swiping of the title made famous in D.W. Griffith’s iconic 1915 silent movie that boasts an impressive scope, but also cringe-worthy support for the KKK. Heartfelt anger, boiling to the surface, is a key component of Parker’s Birth, which is ultimately better with ideas in their infancy than in actual execution.
Specifically, that title is arguably Parker’s best idea, which puts in some perspective how the rest of the movie fares. The screenplay credited only to Parker (supposed co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin is relegated to a shared “story” credit instead) lamely follows a basic birth-to-death biopic path as it chronicles the arc of Nat Turner from his days as a slave child on the Turner plantation to his adulthood where he eventually led a bloodthirsty rebellion against evil slave owners.
The early scenes with young Nat (played by Tony Espinosa) are a waste of time, especially an opening clip where Nat is prophesized during a traditional African ceremony to become a courageous leader in what amounts to some awfully flaccid foreshadowing. The only other purpose this drawn-out portion of the narrative seems to serve is to establish that Nat was taught to read using only the Bible. His literacy is owed to matriarch Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller), who is depicted as a genuinely good person in the midst of a cruel system.
Eventually, Nat grows up in the cotton fields and is now played by Parker, whose performance is arguably the best and brightest achievement of his quadruple position employment here. His direction is certainly the weakest, partially due to a lack of experience and also because he’s trying so clumsily to make his movie palatable to the masses. His scriptwriting then falls in the middle; it’s rough, but with some effective concepts. Parker even has a producer credit on the movie and it’s certainly impressive that he’s tackled so many behind-the-scenes roles, even if the end result is hampered by amateurish filmmaking practices.
One of the movie’s more baffling shortcomings is its look. The photography has a cheap digital sheen and heavy filtering that lends every night scene an unrealistically exaggerated blue glow. Parker’s shot compositions are simple and by the book, exhibiting no imagination or ability to enhance emotions through imagery. Crowded action sequences in the final portion of the movie are chaotic in a manner that feels more like poor planning than a bid for authenticity.
All of these issues stem from Parker trying to do too much with too little experience, but shining through the stumbles is his strong desire to tell this story. What the picture lacks in polish, it at last partially makes up for in passion. It’s certainly nice to see a faith-based movie that exists outside the sphere of Christploitation flicks that lately have dominated the attention of the church-going demographic. Faith and bible passage recitations are a large part of Parker’s The Birth of a Nation and Parker’s performance is at its most powerful when he’s belting out his lines as he does during a few preaching scenes.
Parker doesn’t have anything particularly unique to say about faith, but he pursues the theme energetically. Nat’s transformation from slave to rebel is directly tied to his faith as well, since the plot involves his penniless master Samuel (Armie Hammer) renting him out to neighbouring plantations for preaching sessions. While visiting these other areas, Nat witnesses the overwhelmingly horrific conditions that other slaves are subjected to, including a trio of men who are shackled and kept in the dark with metal plates over their mouths.
Nat sees that many of these other slaves are barely holding on to life, so maimed and beaten they are, and this spurs him to seek retribution. Additionally, these visits transform Samuel in what is the movie’s most intriguing and insightful suggestion about how evil corrupts one’s soul. Prior to the arrangements that rent out Nat’s services, Samuel comes across as a relatively merciful and sympathetic man as far as slave owners go. Obviously, he occupies a terrible position, but compared to most plantation masters in movies, he’s almost decent.
Hammer plays the role well, imbuing Samuel with a weary sadness that reveals itself more subtly than overtly. But after visiting the other plantations, Samuel sees how much crueler his fellow slave owners are, how much more they ask of their slaves, and how casually they dehumanize them. This affects him greatly, not saddening him or causing him to reflect on how much better he is than those evil men, but rather convincing him to adopt a harsher style, to use the slaves to improve his social standing and better his chances of keeping the Turner estate afloat.
The ease with which Samuel transforms is frightening and this becomes another piece of motivation for Nat, who now knows the extent of evil that already borders the Turner property and is starting to creep inside it. This look at the growth of villainy is quite chilling and far more interesting than the portrayal of a racist old jerk played by Jackie Earle Haley, who has really cornered the market on the Evil Little White Man stereotype. Haley’s role is basically present to provide a villain that can stretch across the entire narrative, a face that can anger the audience immediately and one for Nat to meet in the fray of the climactic battle.
Haley’s antagonist is one of many decisions that threatens to make Parker’s movie more generic and conventional than it needs to be. Montage sequences, slow-motion shots used purely as some silly reach for poetic significance, and a rather obnoxiously swelling score from a composer (Henry Jackman) capable of something far richer are all problematic attempts to soak the movie in cheap clichés.
Parker's faith and passion prevents his Birth from being a bungled bust, but even in the most generous sense, this is a blocky, blundering effort wherein Parker shows little to no artistic originality. He emerges as less of a promising filmmaker than a merely competent showman and yet still communicates his emotions convincingly. Parker’s Birth works best as a blunt tool, nailing its point clumsily and hitting its mark with some impact, however ungracefully.