Should films be judged solely on the body of work itself, or should external factors come into play? It’s a struggle with some reviews, because external factors sometimes have a way of creeping into the way we actually view the film. And from its premiere earlier this year at Sundance, The Birth of a Nation has found itself in the position of being about more than the film itself, in good ways and bad. So before we talk about the film itself, let’s recap.
The Birth of a Nation‘s premiere in January occurred just as the Oscars were dealing with the second consecutive year of #OscarsSoWhite. With the subject matter of the film – Nat Turner’s rebellion – and the behind-the-scenes story of star/writer/director Nate Parker developing this passion project, the film was Oscar bait before it even showed a frame on screen. What’s more, the title itself is a bold move: it’s the same as the 1915 film that’s both among the most influential films in cinematic history and undeniably racist. There’s a clear intent with that title choice to make the film itself more than just a film. These moves made The Birth of a Nation seem infallible at the beginning of 2016 – only to come crashing down as some horrific allegations from Parker’s own past resurfaced, some of which highlight some of the legitimate problems with the film.
So with the hype now greatly diminished in some quarters, let’s talk about the film itself. In short, The Birth of a Nation is a compelling but flawed biopic that contains multiple threads that hold relevance today, some intentionally and others not.
The Birth of a Nation follows Nat Turner (Parker), a slave on the Turner plantation who grew up alongside his eventual owner, Samuel (Armie Hammer). Two people in his young life will eventually shape him: his father Isaac (Dwight Henry), who flees the plantation after killing a white man in self-defense, and Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller), the master’s wife, who encourages Nat’s ability to read by teaching him to read from the Bible. As he grows into adulthood, he learns how to use Samuel’s (relative) decency to make life a little easier for those he loves, including securing the well-being (as it were) of Cherry (Aja Naomi King), who will eventually become Nat’s wife.
Eventually, Nat’s work as a preacher to the slaves of the Turner plantation sees him being rented to other plantations to preach the Gospel – and motivate them to be “good.” As he goes to plantations where slaves are clearly suffering, Nat absorbs their suffering and sees a conflict between the world around him and the words he preaches. The masters who hire Nat want him to twist the Bible into subservience in slavery, but Nat sees a challenge to fight against his oppressors.
It’s a powerful story, and at times, it’s also effectively brutal. But The Birth of a Nation isn’t without its flaws. Some of it can be chalked up to Parker being an inexperienced writer and director. Some of the dialogue is stilted, and the direction frequently shifts between striking and flat imagery. Parker has talent, but it’s not fully refined at this point.
More direly, though, the film has some structural and narrative issues that can’t be ignored. Parker does a great job building up the tension to the outburst of rebellion, with a pace that’s slowly but undeniably turning up until it hits the breaking point. Once that breaking point arrives, though, the ensuing action moves quickly, rushing through the notorious rebellion with less violence than one might imagine.
There’s also the issue of the film’s treatment of women. Rape and sexual violence play a part in the film, but it’s the one form of violence directed at slaves that’s not depicted on screen, with the film repeatedly shifting in those moments to a different perspective. One that, it should be noted, focuses on the men involved. These particular acts of violence, more than any others depicted in the film, become about Nat and other men rather than their direct victims. It’s problematic enough on its own, but when taken with the nature of the scandal surrounding Parker, it brings external factors into the film that are hard to ignore.
The Birth of a Nation isn’t exactly the untouchable film that it was earlier this year, which makes talking about its legitimate flaws easier. But that ability doesn’t negate what the film does offer. Parker’s film follows a structure we’ve seen plenty of times before for films tackling notable subject matter, but what makes it unique is that it tackles an underrepresented population. The Birth of a Nation has it flaws, but it still tells a story that needs to be told.