The Birth of a Nation movie full length review - What's Past is Not Dead; It's Not Even Past
I am of many minds when it comes to this film. On the one hand the historical themes and contemporary commentary strewn throughout The Birth of a Nation have penetrated my consciousness in a way few films have.
This film makes me question my values and challenge my thoughts and understanding about slavery, racism and history by virtue of being a story hardly ever told. When we all Remember the Titans (2000) or feel the need to sit through Driving Miss Daisy (1989), we get a version of oppression that's wrapped in cellophane and packaged in friendly trimmings, to give us that warm fuzzy feeling. What's past is past and the backwardness of our ancestors was corrected by the "safe" versions of Frederick Douglass and MLK we remember in Elementary School. The story surrounding Nat Turner's rebellion takes that narrative, throws it out and burns it all to hell.
Nat Turner's slave rebellion started in Southampton County, Virginia in the late summer of 1831. By the time the rebellion was suppressed 3 days later, 55 to 65 white men, women and children were killed, striking fear into the hearts and minds of slaveholding Southerners for nearly a generation. In the immediate aftermath Nat Turner, a slave and literate black preacher was hung along with 56 coconspirators. The State of Virginia promptly banned the practice of teaching slaves to read and concocted ever stricter fugitive slave laws.
That is the official story; a comparatively dry examination when compared to director, producer, writer and star Nate Parker's vision of historical events. Parker has his protagonist the object of prophecy; a figure whose relations to this mortal realm, mixes themes of Christianity and African animism. Coming of age at the estate of the middle-class Turner family, Nat (Parker) is treated comparatively well for a slave. He's not separated by his mother (Ellis) nor his grandmother (Scott) and is even afforded the ability to marry fellow slave Cherry (King) albeit in open secret. Yet when his master Samuel (Hammer) loans him out to other slaveholders so he can preach the gospel to keep other slaves inspired (and happy in bondage), Nat begins to see the scope of slavery and its inherent evil.
Birth of a Nation builds itself as an important film and due in large part by its radicalism, it largely succeeds. Unlike the similarly themed 12 Years a Slave (2012), this is not the story of a victim forced into an unnatural and hellish nightmare but a person born into that very nightmare. It is only through the passages of biblical teaching that Turner begins to fathom liberation; a concept seemingly encrypted in every sermon he makes. Of course within the context of the story it takes a little more than a fugitive father and a tour of Southampton County to bring him to the brink. His wife is raped and severely beaten by Raymond Cobb (Haley), a principle antagonist we pin most of our animosity towards. It's a thread that gives the peak of the rebellion a satisfactory arc but by comparison a fairly tame one.
What's more muddled and, depending on whom you ask more necessary is the relationship between Turner and his slave master Samuel. When compared to other slaveholders Samuel's warmth as well as that of his mother Elizabeth (Miller) seems almost enlightened. I dare say that those inclined to scuttle slavery's effect on modern culture may even find a warped justification in the tortured eyes of Armie Hammer's struggling farmer. Furthermore, when communication breaks down between slave and slaveholder, the power struggle between them can be trivially compared to a testy employee biting the hand that feeds because a Type-B manager couldn't keep a tight grip. Yet I remind you that even the most benevolent of tyrants are still tyrants. If viewed by more critical lenses Samuel is a much stronger exhibition of the banality of evil than Michael Fassbinder in 12 Years a Slave ever was. He hints that he's sympathetic to their plight but is cajoled by social and economic pressures to have slaves and keep them working. Some movies may parse systems and people, as a way of having their cake and eating it too. Nate Parker seems to be saying, in the eyes of the victims, there is no difference.
On the other hand, The Birth of a Nation is not completely beyond reproach. There are quite a few expressionistic asides meant to appease art house sensibilities, yet strain under constraints of budget and directorial inexperience. There are also some clunky attempts to place the story within a continuum of American history and the occasional Christ-like tableau that's just far too obvious. Also when compared to other films highlighting the same evils, the staging feels less like an evocation than a form of self-censorship so as not to alienate political organizations, church groups and the odd AP U.S. History class. Viscerally, the film is less Roots (1977) and more The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974).
I am of many minds when it comes to this film. Much like Do the Right Thing (1989), white audiences and black audiences are likely to have drastically different experiences at the theater. The title itself is an incendiary callback to a film that's simultaneously considered one of the best American films of all time and one of the most racist. I don't know what history will say about The Birth of a Nation but Birth of a Nation sure has quite a lot to say about history. While being a well-paced character study, erupting in an apex of Braveheart (1995)-level zeal, Birth of a Nation argues that the past isn't as dead as we sometimes believe it to be; it's not even past.