“It’s a masterpiece!” “The best movie of the year!” “One of the most important films of the decade!” You may have seen these hyperbolic statements strewn across the internet when Nate Parker’s The Birth Of A Nation hit Sundance like an overdue reality check this past January. After a record-breaking amount of money was spent on purchasing distribution rights for the film, it almost seemed like the movie was a train that couldn’t be stopped, causing fervor throughout the land. Now, after months of hype coupled with a scandal for Parker, everyone gets to see what shook people to the core back in January. And after all that, it’s really just fine.
While it may be carrying some of the most personal and visceral subject matter of the year, Parker’s freshman film feels lost in between telling a story and striving to make a difference as its lead character did. I may not buy into the idea that a movie can become a cultural moment in a world filled with injustice, but The Birth Of A Nation reminds us of a broken country that didn’t exist too long ago—a country still trying to deal with the demons that drove Nat Turner to revolt.
Nat Turner (Nate Parker), literate slave and preacher, grew up in the early 1800s under the ownership of some less-racist-than-others farmers in Southampton County, Virginia. When he was a kid, his family dubbed him a chosen one—a person that would bring change for his race in a time filled with hate and disdain toward them. It wasn’t until 1831 that Nat brought a group of his brethren together to fight against the white slavers in his area. Whether his legacy changed the way the country thought about slavery at that time is up to someone with better bearings on American history, but I can tell you now that it’s a legacy that is repeated for a reason.
The Birth Of A Nation is a curious film for so many reasons. On one hand, it can be construed as an origin story weirdly tied to superhero culture. On another, it can be construed as a horrific vision of a time we know little about—a time people keep trying to sweep under the rug and pretend didn’t happen. In today’s social context, Nat Turner’s story is as important as ever, even if it’s put together in a slapdash “prestige drama” manner.
While inconsistencies are abound in The Birth Of A Nation, Nate Parker has a great eye for producing a well-rounded portrait of Nat Turner’s revolt. His portrayal of white guilt by way of Armie Hammer’s Samuel Turner is enthralling. He shows that Sam can be a good guy when called upon, but when the people surrounding are pressuring him to be a vindictive slave owner, he chooses what’s best for his family’s name instead of upholding what he sees is an injustice. Sam’s death marks the beginning of the film’s riotous climax, and it’s as disturbing as it is deserved. That doesn’t make it any less depressing to watch.
That brings me to my major gripe with the film: There’s so much gratuitous violence sprinkled throughout the runtime. Sure, the climactic battle sequence is key to put in there for history’s sake but brutal images are littered throughout to try to instigate a feeling of discomfort. These random and altogether shortsighted instances don’t do the story any favors, which is already suffering from struggling on what it really wants to be. The big battle is even bookended by Nat getting revenge on a slaver that the story follows as the biggest villain character. Something so devastating and disgusting like Nat Turner’s revolt doesn’t need a “good man, bad man” situation. To me, it’s already inherent that Turner’s actions were a bit justified considering the climate he lived in.
Luckily, those dramatic shortcomings get outshined by a number of great scenes mined from years upon years of anger and hurt. Nat’s own religious awakening, the reveal of his wife’s vicious wounds from an assault, and a really well-constructed final scene all do more than move; they succeed in instilling the crippling hurt Parker has been feeling about his race for years. More than anything, The Birth Of A Nation stands as reason enough to rip open the wound of racial injustice in our society now more than ever, even if it doesn’t all come together perfectly.