The Birth of a Nation goes beyond what we typically think of as a “slave movie.” Yes, there are scenes depicting the horrible treatment slaves went through and yes, there is a beautiful display of the strength of the human spirit to overcome horror. But writer/director/star Nate Parker is saying more than just “slavery is bad” here. With The Birth of a Nation, Parker is not only telling the story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, but he is is indicting the theological perversion of Christianity that allowed the atrocity of American slavery in the first place.
Due to my ignorance of history, I was surprised by just how spiritual The Birth of a Nation ended up being. Doing some research, it makes sense. Not only was Nat Turner a preacher of the Bible, but he frequently experienced visions and what he would call “messages from God.” There could be an adaptation of Turner’s story that could ignore his religious passions, simply telling the story of a violent rebellion, but it would miss the heart of the story and the very core of Turner’s legacy.
Nat Turner (Nate Parker) was monetized by his master (Armie Hammer), being forced to preach the Bible to his fellow slaves, convincing them that this was God’s will for their lives. While there are sections of the movie that are outright disturbing due to violence, for me, the most harrowing scenes are ones in which Turner quotes “slaves should obey their masters” verses to his brothers and sisters. In these moments the film is strongest. In these moments, the horrors of history present itself.
Yes, a film’s messages and themes are important, but they need to be delivered in a well executed package. So it is with a happy heart that I say The Birth of a Nation is an extremely well directed movie by Parker (his directorial debut). The film knows when to show a disturbing image and when to cut away, sometimes a person’s reaction is all we need to see. These directorial choices along with the powerful performances across the board make for a successful cinematic experience.
Although the direction is strong and the message is incredibly important, that doesn’t mean the film is without flaws. Jackie Earle Haley’s character serves as a villain and is meant to put a singular face to the evils of slavery. Unfortunately, that means his character is simplified to cliches and coincidence. I mean, I get it, maybe we need an individual to channel our hate to for catharsis’ sake, but it stretched the realm of possibility just a little too much that this person would be involved in Turner’s story from beginning to end.
The other writing misstep comes with the reality that Turner’s rebellion happened over the course of 48 hours. Though the last half of the film is building towards what we would call “the action,” it doesn’t successfully play as a satisfying 3rd act. We enter the rebellion pretty abruptly, and it’s historical shortness leaves it cinematically lacking. Though it is moving to see these individuals rise up against evil, the film is strongest when it is speaking to its larger themes of a corrupt church.
The Birth of a Nation is not anti-Christianity by any means. On the contrary, the film is able to show the power of a faith-based community to overcome hardship. There are a handful of times where the two societies are contrasted, specifically on how they incorporate their faith. On the white side, a gift for a newly married couple is a female slave, she is given and received like we would a pet today. On the slave side, we see two weddings within the slave community: they are raw, they are passionate, they are beautiful, they are powerful, and they also show the power of the Black Church today.
Both Nate Parker’s acting and directing are at their strongest when he is depicting Nat Turner preaching what he knows to be false. When he quotes those verses with tears in his eyes, the power of The Birth of a Nation is on full display. In that moment, we as audience know what Nat knows. Whatever those words on the page meant when they were written, the use of those words in this culture was pure evil. We know that truth, and that truth makes The Birth of a Nation an incredibly powerful experience.
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