Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation has more to live up to than any film possibly could. Starting out as the Great Hope for black awards glory at its premiere at the Sundance Festival, where it won both the Jury and Audience prizes, before being transitioned into a position of having to defend itself against the controversies wrought by its creator. Even the very best film would have immense trouble distracting its audience from these two pressures, and whilst The Birth of a Nation is certainly an arresting take on a horrifying period of history, it’s far from the ‘very best film’, even in its own genre.
Co-opting the title from the notoriously racist DW Griffiths film/KKK propaganda piece, Parker sets out his stall early for a headline-grabbing and revisionist take on the slavery that built the American South. Following literate slave preacher Nat Turner (Parker himself in the lead role) from his childhood to his leading of the bloodiest slave uprising the US ever saw, and Parker frames him as a hero forged by destiny, an arbiter of God’s will. Whilst those religious overtones might seem easy to make too heavy-handed, it’s actually one of Birth of a Nation’s great strengths that the Biblical imagery hits home with all the power it needs. Forced by his master to use his gift of reading to help subjugate his fellow slaves, Turner instead finds a warrior’s strength in the holy words, using it to instil rebellious spirit in the black population of the South.
Though the faith angle has fittingly soul-stirring power, too much of the rest of it falls slightly flat. Aside from a genuinely sickening force-feeding scene, the horrors of slavery are presented with a surprising discretion, robbing the potential raw force that this story could hit with. It doesn’t help that the supporting cast fail to make an enormous impression. Colman Domingo’s Hark is supposed to be Nat’s right-hand man in the rebellion, but it would be hard to name any distinguishing character traits for him. Armie Hammer, as Nat’s master Samuel, sometimes impresses as a man utterly convinced of his being a ‘good slaver’, but is lost behind an unkempt beard and distracting false teeth.
Very unfortunately, it’s the women who feel most poorly served. Aja Naomi King as Cherie-Anne and Gabrielle Union as Esther exist as cyphers to inspire the men to violence after they’re raped, a particularly jarring writing choice given the furore surrounding Parker, who, alongside directing, starring, and producing, also scripts this biopic. Women are too often written out of their own stories in historical films, and though Birth of a Nation may be revolutionary in its complete absence of a white saviour figure, it’s depressingly traditional in its treatment of gender.
As undermining as these flaws are, Parker manages to leave them behind once the rebellion finally gets underway. As the violence escalates, the tempo of the film keeps up, building to a fever pitch that culminates in a rousing final battle. It’s kinetic, weighty, and, for the brief moment where it looks like Turner’s makeshift army could actually win, incredibly cathartic. It’s just a shame that it’s over so quickly, as it showcases the best of Parker’s filmmaking instincts. His inexperience shows through a lot of the time, but he can really conduct a war scene and musters up some breathtaking landscape shots.
He also really knows how to end a film. Undoubtedly Birth of a Nation’s most powerful scene and imagery comes right at the conclusion, a battle cry that the unjustly powerful cannot write history forever. In a film already loaded with overt iconography, the final shot is far from subtle, but is so immensely evocative that it almost washes away all of the preceding problems, letting you leave the cinema on an inspired high.