Scott F. Evans
The following is a review of Nate Parker’s film, The Birth of a Nation. It is not another rehash of his past allegations, nor is it an unfair projection of those charges onto this work. I have no interest in retrying him in the court of public opinion. I will not be address topics of “toxic masculinity”, rape culture, the meaning of consent, personal responsibility, or the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption. If you’re looking for a commentary on those things as they relate (or not) to The Birth of a Nation, there are literally dozens of pieces all over the web devoted to that pursuit. It is this writer’s opinion that Parker’s past is irrelevant to this film.
Now that we’ve gotten that shit out of the way…
Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is nearly a masterpiece. It’s a little pretentious and some scenes suffer under the limited budget. But beyond that, this film works on just about every level. While its main strengths are in the performances, Parker and cinematographer Elliot Davis turn in a very attractive looking piece. I don’t think the cinematography will win any awards, but visually it is an elegant motion picture. This is Parker’s first feature film and he already has a strong sense of pacing and control. The film moves along at a good clip and he brings the run time in at a manageable two hours. That may sound short for a historical bio, but Nat Turner’s story doesn’t feel shortchanged. The common practice in modern cinema seems to be padding these stories out to two and a half or three hours. Parker keeps it tight, hitting us with just enough to craft a more than satisfying character study.
Which is what The Birth of a Nation actually is. The film’s name and advertising are a little misleading. This is not the sprawling epic the title suggests. Instead it’s an examination of how Nat Turner goes from being an unwitting tool of oppression to an instrument of liberation. Make no mistake, this movie is about Nat Turner. The other characters, his wife, fellow slaves, slave-owners and catchers all service Turner’s arc. Parker focuses solely on what makes Turner tick. He explores the environment, and the circumstances that cause a man, raised as property and taught to teach tolerance and peace to his brothers and sisters, to rise up to fight for their freedom. Other characters have minor arcs as well. Nat’s owner, Samuel Turner played by Armie Hammer, goes from being a fairly benign presence in Nat’s life to an outright adversary. Aja Naomi King gives Nat’s wife Cherry some nice levels, taking the character from near feral to quietly dignified to supportive radical. Aunjanue Ellis, Coleman Domingo, and Jackie Earle Haley also give solid and memorable performances.
But The Birth of a Nation is about Nat Turner, and Parker dives into this role… giving us an acting class on nuance, stillness and power… both internal and expressive. Turner is a slave, so he’s forbidden to speak out against the horrors he sees. But Parker shows us through subtle facial expressions and changes in his eyes, exactly how Turner feels about these events. We see him fight to maintain control as his manhood is stripped away from him day after day. He struggles to contain himself as he sees how his sermons are used to control other slaves. Even when he finally explodes, it’s a contained fury. Many actors would go big at these moments. But Parker stays within the character he created. He plays Turner with a consistent level of strength. Even in emotional moments, you can see Turner is always in control of himself. Parker plays Turner with a kind of power rarely seen in modern black male leading roles.
“Oh no, not another slave movie…”
Yes, another slave movie, but here’s the difference. The Birth of a Nation is a tough, uncompromising film. But it’s also an empowering one. The slave characters have agency and are active participants in achieving their goals. There’s no sitting around waiting for white saviors. And while the ending may seem tragic, that’s only the surface level. Even as the rebellion is put down, the characters are even triumphant in defeat. They stood up and died free.
See The Birth of a Nation in theaters.