Review: The Birth Of A Nation
Slavery was awful. It is perhaps the most destructive force in America's short history, robbing generations of immeasurable dignity and sewing seeds we are still tasting the bitter fruit of to this day. Couple that with the immense prosperity enjoyed by America since and you start to understand the profound injustice of the institution and its hideous legacy. With that said, all movies about the subject are not created equal. A litany of awful World War II movies have shown us that an important topic does not a good movie make, so where on the spectrum does The Birth of a Nation fall?
After much discussion, it is finally here for all to see. Much of that discussion involved off-screen matters, but what little did discuss the contents of the movie ranged from fawning praise to damming criticism. Both are misguided. The Birth of a Nation is not some elevation of the form; nor is it a bastardization of it. It is instead an ambitious vanity project made without the skill necessary to really do the story justice. So much is neglected in favor of telling a straightforward story. The audience and the historical record suffer as a result.
The Birth of a Nation tells the story of an enslaved man named Nat Turner (played by Nate Parker). Turner was taught to read by his masters at a very early age. Channelling that skillset, he begins studying the Bible and preaching to other enslaved individuals. Eventually, masters far and wide begin to pay his master to have him come preach obedience on their plantations. As Turner witnesses more and more of the atrocities of slavery, he decides to lead a violent rebellion to counter the wrongs of the institution.
If that synopsis seems simple, it is. The events and messaging of the film are straightforward and the narrative is fairly basic. That in and of itself is not a bad thing. However, the film's deficiencies run deeper. All of the characters, other than Nat Turner himself, are paper thin. All of the female characters and white characters in the film are woefully inadequate--existing to do little more than push the story forward in open-handed and unnuanced ways. Parker's heavy hand shows a lack of skill that belies the complexity of the unimaginably complicated story he is seeking to tell. While that is forgivable in depicting the rightfully demonized slave masters, the same cannot be said of the women who were enslaved next to Turner.
The almost invisible female characters in this movie are a shame. At no point does the movie ever stop to consider the effect of the events on them. It focuses solely on Turner's perception and a certain Braveart machismo. Esther (played by Gabrielle Union), for instance, is given very little to do in the film other than to get married and be raped. All we need to know about this character is that her rape ignites Turner. The same can be said of Turner's own wife, whose rape is another of the central driving forces behind Turner's rebellion in the film. This choice is beyond curious for a number of reasons, but more than anything, it makes the film feel limited and small in the face of an enormous subject.
And while the film felt like something of a PBS special for much of its 120-minute runtime, there are effective moments. Scenes depicting only enslaved people felt viscerally genuine. It was only when their cartoonish white counterparts were included that it started to take on a certain hokey made-for-television feel. Perhaps the most effective moments in the entire film are when Turner preaches to his fellow enslaved people. It is hard not to feel his pain as he tries to relay loft and ethereal messages to people with obvious and immediate wounds. Those scenes signal his transition from an MLK-esque peace to a Malcolm X-esque radicalism. That the film doesn't do more to dig into this internal struggle is a shame. It instead chooses a 'this happened, and then this happened, and then he decided to do this' approach. Being an enslaved person is perhaps the worst way to spend time on this planet. While a valiant effort, The Birth of a Nation simply falls short of doing this story justice.
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