The Birth of a Nation Review
"The bright, uplifting coming-of-age story"
The Birth of a Nation
, written, directed by and starring Nate Parker, is a period drama film based on the true story of a slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. It offers a brutal, unflinching look at a very dark part of America's history, but ultimately sells its own story short.
Nat Turner (Parker) is a literate slave, whose services as a preacher are being sold by his master Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) in an attempt to subdue unruly slaves. After being forced to witness countless atrocities and injustices, Nate decides to lead a violent uprising against their white masters.
The Birth of a Nation
is a cold, dark movie that does not shy away from some very unsettling scenes of graphic violence. A slave that refuses to eat has all of his teeth knocked out one by one so that he can be force fed; injuries caused by beatings or whippings are displayed in full; slow, painful, bloody deaths - this is a harsh movie that's tough to sit through, but it gets its point across.
It makes the hardships, cruelty and injustices endured by slaves in the United States feel like a raw, open wound, which at the very least makes it a movie worthy of debate and conversation. The ending suggests that the movie is about making sure Nat Turner's legacy isn't forgotten - that although his rebellion was short-lived and brutally overpowered, it was not in vain.
To that end, The Birth of a Nation
does not really succeed. It's too dark and relentless, too grim and cold to pull that off. Moreover, while it paints a striking picture of life for slaves in a broad sense, it fails to really make singular characters stand out. The actors give fine, if not great performances, but the characterization isn't particularly captivating. You understand Nat's motivations, his beliefs, his conviction, but his personal story doesn't resonate emotionally. The Birth of a Nation
works best when it conveys emotions collectively, not through its individual characters. Unfortunately, the focus is mostly on Nat Turner's personal struggle, so often the movie doesn't quite play to its strengths.
What the movie is most successful at doing is making you understand the wrath. Not to support or encourage it, but understand where it comes from - when the uprising is in full swings and the rebels are picking off their masters as the sleep, you completely understand. It sounds straightforward - oh, their masters were horrible to them and that's why they wanted revenge, that's easy to understand - but The Birth of a Nation
makes you feel the wrath in a very particular way.
It's not a bad movie, but it clearly has it sights set quite a bit higher than it can reach. It achieves a lot but falls short of its lofty aspirations. A few narrative shortcomings hold it back as well - Jackie Earle Haley's minor antagonist is stock at best and Nat's wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) being assaulted and raped is used mainly to further Nat's character development, which is a pretty terrible way to incorporate rape into a story.
That The Birth of a Nation
manages to strike a chord and a particularly painful one at that, there is no doubt - but for everything it gets right there seems to be something else that it gets wrong or doesn't work as well.