Director: Nate Parker
Runtime: 110 minutes
President Woodrow Wilson has been (falsely) quoted for decades as describing D.W. Griffith’s landmark cinematic epic/paean to white supremacy The Birth of a Nation as being “like writing history with lightning.” Regardless of the quote’s actual attribution (or total fabrication), or the film’s hideous messages, it’s hard to fault the line as inaccurate. The film was, on a technical level, a groundbreaking push forward for cinematic techniques, particularly in the editing department.
Now, roughly a century later, actor-turned-director Nate Parker has admirably set out to rewrite history with lightning. In sharing a title with Griffith’s KKK epic, Parker’s The Birth of a Nation acts as a historical and cinematic corrective. The story of Nat Turner’s bloody slave rebellion is one that hopefully makes Griffith turn in his grave. A shame, then, that such worthy subject matter and contextual significance is spent on an altogether amateurish endeavor. Nat Turner’s story and its relation to American race relations is important, but that can only carry a film so far.
Arriving three years after Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Parker’s film is not without merits, but comes off as pale imitation of bolder, richer narratives about our country’s great shame. As is often the case with historical biopics, the protagonist’s rougher edges have been sanded down to make him an archetypical hero. The same goes for just about everything else in Birth, which proceeds through a checklist of Signifiers of Slavery on its way to the end of a tepid Great Martyr story.
In fairness, there are times when Birth hits home, whether due merely to its content or the film’s tackling of said content. A scene involving a slave being force fed (it involves clearing out some teeth) is harrowing stuff any way you slice it. And there are other moments that speak to broader truths about the silent community that built up among slaves on a plantation. After Nat (Parker, pulling triple duty) is whipped for disobedience, the camera pulls up to reveal that, in the hours since the whipping, the other slaves have put out candles in front of their quarters as a sort of secretive vigil. And, in the film’s most impressive moment, the camera pulls back from a close up of a black boy’s face to reveal that he’s one of six or seven slaves who have been hanged together on a tree in a hauntingly still tableau.
But these are grace notes in a movie that often feels too caught up with its main character (and thus, it’s star, director, and writer) to speak to bigger concerns. By casting Turner as a semi-prophetic shepherd of slaves, the actual man’s mark on history becomes diminished. When Turner’s wife Cherry (How to Get Away with Murder‘s Aja Naomi King, who’s excellent) whispers that hundreds of blacks have been killed in retaliation for Turner’s rebellion, it almost feels like an afterthought. Yes, slaveowners exacted terrible vengeance on people, but at least Nat Turner got to have one last conversation with his beloved and then die for our sins. Oh, and to cap it all off, the last thing Turner sees is an angel with classic feathery white wings smiling down at him. Pile on the overeager score (which would be a better fit for a Spielberg-directed historical romance), and the film reveals its lack of finesse. There’s a difference between flinging down lightning bolts hoping that something leaves a mark, and wielding them with eloquence.