Filmmakers who serve as director, writer and actor are usually more talented in one aspect of their hyphenate than the others. The Birth of a Nation, by the much-hyped hyphenate Nate Parker, is best in one aspect: Parker has an actorly presence that makes this film immediate and powerful.
It’s the story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in the early 1830s, which terrified the South. When Turner and his band were broken up, about 60 white civilians were dead. Turner grows from a houseboy on the estate that gave him his name. When there’s a reversal of fortune on the plantation, Nat (played in adulthood by Parker) is sent into the fields to have his hands torn by the sharp cotton thorns. Parker absorbs all this American nightmare with a grin of disbelief masquerading as a forced harmless smile. Parker’s Turner seems to be discovering the world of slavery as we watch—learning all the pitfalls that keep even a well-meaning, gentle slave from peace or safety.
Turner was taught how to read, and what the masters gave him to read was key to his revolt. These slaveholders, so enamored of the Bible, never considered how their slaves might have understood the more genocidal passages in 1 Samuel.
Turner’s radicalization is balanced by the story of Turner’s master, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), who declines through loss, bad luck and drink. Frederick Douglass wrote that slavery poisoned both the slave and the master, and Birth of a Nation excels, like no movie I’ve seen, at illustrating the poison’s double effect. In the guarded, eventually shattered friendship between Nat and his master, there’s a pang of loss: hurt for Nat’s betrayal and sorrow, as well as a lesser pang for a spineless, solitary white man who could have had a companion instead of a captive.
That’s not to say that the tragedy of slavery fell equally on the whites, and the atrocities are here to prove it—first, in one real horror-story sequence in a hot-box shed, and the punishment of Turner in the pillory. The movie has more appeal in the subtle reveal of decadence than—as Parker thinks—in the huge manipulative outrages. Worst is the savaging of Turner’s wife by a small group of white men. People can see this unexploitative filmed attack and its tragic aftermath, and decide for themselves what Parker’s feelings are about rape—it’s now well-known that Parker was accused of that crime in college. In the famous William Styron novel, it was Turner’s mother who was raped. Styron has been praised for rescuing a then-obscure rebel from forgotten history, but in both this 2016 movie and the 1968 Pulitzer Prize-winner, a sexual assault gins the rebel up into revolution. Parker overestimates the length of time it takes to get an audience ready for vengeance. Most moviegoers are as eager to see slaveholders get what’s coming to them as they are to see Nazis paid back.
Turner may have been a revolutionary who grasped a martyr’s crown, or a religious fanatic who saw signs in the heavens and heard the voice of God. Birth of a Nation is so much of a Christian movie that it’s being advertised as enlightening spiritual entertainment. Parker may have oversimplified this rebel, the way Jesus is always oversimplified in a movie. It may not be clear to the people who are most rapt about Birth of a Nation that you could make a movie about an Islamic suicide bomber just like this, with these many provocations and a finale of slow-mo violence.
For its weaknesses, Birth of a Nation is an important corrective, necessary since such serious nonsense is still talked about slavery more than 150 years since it ended. Take, for example, Bill O’Reilly’s opinion that the slaves who built the White House were “well-fed.” The point isn’t that, at some points in history, certain American slaves ate well. The point is that if you own a man, you can feed him as much or as little as you like.
Birth of a Nation R; 120 Min. Directed by Nate Parker. Starring Nate Parker, Gabrielle Union, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, and Colman Domingo.