Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation tackles America’s original sin with a mesmerising lead performance by the director, but Parker would have benefitted from honing his skills first before bringing this weighty topic to the big screen.
Director of Photography:
Running time: 120 minutes
Jacques Rivette would have been horrified by one shot towards the very end of The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s historic depiction of an unsuccessful uprising among the slave-owning population of south-eastern Virginia in the early 19th-century. Starting with a close-up of a black man hung by the neck and dangling from a tree, the camera slowly and all too elegantly tracks back slowly to reveal six more people – men, women and children – who have suffered the same fate.
The sharp contrast between the brutality these people have suffered and the sophistication of the visuals is similar to the oft-cited indictment of a shot in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1960 film, Kapò, which led Rivette, at the time a film critic for the Cahiers du cinéma and already a filmmaker in his own right, to pen a scathing article on the use of a dolly shot to transform the abhorrent – his article was titled “On Abjection” – into something pretty and digestible.
Parker wrote and directed The Birth of a Nation 100 years after DW Griffith’s eponymous epic about the Civil War that is often berated for its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan and its shocking presentation of black characters. He also stars in the lead role as Nat Turner, a black preacher who is employed by his owner and childhood friend, Samuel, to keep other slaves in line by talking to them about God’s love for them and his desire for them to work hard so that one day, presumably after a lifetime of abuse, they can reach heaven.
Turner, who shared his last name with his owner, as was the usage at the time, has a face we cannot look away from, and Parker’s performance is soft yet riveting. He is a reluctant hero; his awakening is gradual and one that he evidently wants to repress because he knows the likely outcome. And yet, after turning too God to soothe the pain of slavery, blunt the anger he and his fellow slaves feel and talk away the daily abuse, he finally recognises that the Bible has at least as many points justifying an uprising as it has relenting to domination by another.
We first meet Turner as a young boy, the son of slaves working on an estate in an outwardly idyllic setting: the lush green forests of Virginia. It goes without saying that the social environment is altogether very different, and despite the desire of the owner’s daughter to raise the precocious Nat in their home to read the Bible (other books are for whites only, she warns), the power structure is immediately clear as Nat’s own mother has no say in the matter.
Over time, he sees the monstrous way in which slave owners in the vicinity handle their workers, especially Raymond Cobb, the ruthless man who went after his father. And while he manages to ignore the harrowing cruelty, it ultimately affects his life directly when two women in his life are raped by smiling white gentlemen. One can almost hear the words of Ezekiel 25:17, made famous by Quentin Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, resonate louder and louder as the injustices build on each other with alarming normalcy: “I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I shall lay my vengeance upon them.”
Unfortunately, there is a palpable sense that this is the film of a first-time filmmaker. For all its meandering, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave always felt like the work of a director with a vision, a firm hand and a sense for quality. The Birth of a Nation has a powerful overarching story and a notable though all-too-brief third act, but the camerawork is forgettable (when it is not objectionable, as in the example at the top of the review), shots of hallucinations with backlit angels are beyond silly, and the performance of the actor playing the young Nat is too serious and controlled.
The director also underestimates his audience, for example when he recaps the major moments of hatred that Nat has witnessed – all of which we have seen – before burning the words of 1 Samuel 15:2 into the screen as a way to tell us that things are about to change big-time. This kind of repetition assumes the viewer has not been paying attention, even though the iniquities are always immediately apparent and often gruesome to watch.
The Birth of a Nation has a theme and a story every bit as important as those of other major films about slavery, but the depiction is often watered down for mass consumption, the story is too slight, and the execution is too amateurish to have a great impact on the viewer. Except for telling a story that really happened but had not been brought to the screen until now, the film does not distinguish itself from its brothers and sisters and is a missed opportunity. However, it does provide a much-needed corrective to D.W. Griffith’s unabashedly racist rendering of black Americans.
Viewed at the Bratislava International Film Festival 2016.