Before this goes much further, there’s an elephant in the room to address with The Birth of a Nation. Director/writer/producer/star Nate Parker has been in the press a lot lately for reasons outside of his feature film debut’s release. Much has been revealed, discussed and dissected about his past actions that one can delve into as they please. Still, as a connoisseur of film, I do wish to emphasis that the art should be able to be judged on craft and execution rather than the actions of the artist. Many a great filmmaker, musician or writer has perpetrated horrendous actions, but their work shouldn’t dismissed because of it. This is neither a judgement or excuse for Parker’s past or his responses to such judgements elsewhere, nor is it a complete dismissal of those who can’t perform such a separation between the craft and the crafter. This is all merely laying out perspective on the table.
Now, all that being said, The Birth of a Nation is a film with powerful moments of blistering impact. Parker’s depiction of this slave era isn’t as brutally unflinching as something like Steve McQueen’s masterpiece 12 Years A Slave, but it is still decently effective in terms of selling very brutal aspects of this Antebellum era of the United States. There’s moments of extreme violence in varying forms, including a scene of horrific dentistry and a head being smashed by a mallet. All of these attempts are well intentioned, but feel limited by some of Parker’s choices as a filmmaker.
The Birth of a Nation is more a showcase for Nate Parker as a director and actor than it ever is him as a writer. Parker elects to take a sense of story telling shorthand to unveil Nat Turner’s story. Some of Parker’s best choices as a director are when he chooses to go for less direct depiction and more a lasting layer of the aftermath. There are a few dream like visions that sell Turner’s struggle, such as a bleeding ear of corn. There are moments where Turner merely sits in contemplation in front of fires to show his ever boiling rage for injustices he sees on a daily basis. Both showcase Parker’s creative ways of getting around certain holes in information with history in a more lasting fashion than outright showing the lascivious sexual or violent actions of the era. They also showcase Elliot Davis‘ varied cinematography, contrasting the grey layer of dread with warm beautiful moments of connection that sells these slaves as a community trying to cope with their situation in however minute a fashion they can.
Yet at the same time that economic storytelling comes at the price of many characters, particularly Gabrielle Union. The events around her character end up feeling far more exploitative than intended, mainly because of how much of a prop she ultimately is in the story. She barely has more than a word of dialogue and all of the horrible actions against her are framed from the perspective of men. At least the actions around Aja Namoi King as Turner’s wife are more a shock because of how we saw her and Parker gain a trust and communication… even if they too felt a bit rushed.
All of this is a shame because Parker is dealing with intriguing perspectives on this era. Turner and his relationship to his master Samuel Turner in particular had a fascinating back and forth. The line between former youthful chaps and the subservient relationship of adulthood felt murky more often than not, showing more shades to a character as potentially one note as Samuel. Parker’s performance shows the nuance in struggling with his success and seeing the deplorable behavior towards his people. Armie Hammer has the right mixture of surface level moral superiority for Nat initially that makes his eventual awful treatment all the more revealing. This is the type of character interaction development that shows off Parker’s techniques at his best.
The inconsistent pacing and storytelling of The Birth of a Nation have a lot to do with aspects of production. Namely, the editing by Steven Rosenblum. The first hour or so is full of sweeping shots and thumb twiddling elements that drag out the running time. The rather sloppy execution of some of these more violent moments is baffling, especially from the perspective of the man who edited Glory. The hesitance there isn’t necessarily a major problem, but it dulls the effect Parker strives for. We’re supposed to see these violent actions in full early on so that the impact of seeing this revolt take place can really stew with us. Yet, Parker and Rosenblum elect so often to cut either at the point of impact or even the reaction to such violent action that things become far more muddled. This seems to be an attempt to keep us in the moment as the kinetic action takes place.
Then again, the overall problem is that The Birth of a Nation is a story building up to this slave revolt that amounts to so little of the running time. A major moment that showed those who were oppressed could strike back, mirroring our own modern climate with racial tolerance. The Birth of a Nation hammers hard the idea of Nat Turner’s important contribution as a martyr to those who would later fight to abolish slavery while emphasizing his journey as a man being pushed through a broken system. On that level, Nate Parker’s film is an admirable effort that works more than it doesn’t. Yet, the effect is still consistently dulled by faulty storytelling techniques and rather shoddy editing that leads to the small amount of time with this key element of the revolt. There’s potential there for Nate Parker as a filmmaker, but he works far better in smaller intimate moments rather than broad strokes. It very much shows that he is a first time filmmaker; full of gumption yet not on point in craft.
Rating: 3 out of 5 Empty Bottles of Brandy for Samuel Turner
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