Nate Parker’s The Birth Of A Nation tells a story through roars, not whispers. Gut-wrenching social injustice with gory visuals to spare. Steve McQueen previously displayed such gravity in 12 Years A Slave, and Parker’s similar take on arguably the darkest time in American history possesses that same inherent soul-shattering wallop. These are truths in the material, and more importantly, in period dramas of this nature.
Unfortunately, there’s a vast difference between McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave and Parker’s The Birth Of A Nation – technique. McQueen stormed numerous festivals and demanded to be heard, while Parker’s film feels tailor-made for Sundance hype. So many scenes reflect a first-timer’s need to over-stage the slightest conversation, unlike McQueen’s continued ability to strip humanity beyond the rawest raw. Parker delivers tremendous sermons and spotlights a very unique take on slave drama, but disengages audiences by displaying an inability to ride moments out for the torturous hell that they are – no matter how impressive production values may be (credit where credit is due).
Nate Parker stars as Nat Turner, a slave boy who’s destined for better things than cotton picking and housework. From an early age, Nat studied the Bible under the tutelage of his owner’s nurturing wife. This leads to Nat becoming one of the more learned slaves on the Turner plantation, until the family’s patriarch passes, leaving Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) in charge. Eventually, the Turner plantation goes into debt, until an opportunity presents itself. Other planation owners are willing to pay Samuel money in exchange for Nat’s preaching, specifically to raise the spirits of their own slaves. This goes well for a while, until Samuel crosses a line. Nat can no longer stand idly by while his brothers and sisters are harassed, so he calls for a revolution in the name of God, and tends to his flock.
Parker – as Nat Turner – is as charismatic a man of God you’ll find in any period epic. His words are delivered with such poise and conviction, believing in the almighty power that each Apostle’s story holds. This is the crowing achievement in The Birth Of A Nation, as Parker embodies a slave who finds justice and vengeance in the good book’s teachings. There’s a dynamism in Nat’s perspective, mostly because Samuel’s prized slave is treated with more respect than the other help. As Nat travels, he sees how other slaves are treated, and forces false comfort past his lips while an always-changing congregation can barely hold the weight of their bony, abused forms. There’s such confliction in Parker’s most impassioned speeches, and a leader’s courage through the worst.
Yet, Parker’s handling of set-up and arthouse accents do such a disservice to The Birth Of A Nation. Scenes are continually opened in the most mechanically textbook manner possible, as the camera slowly pans in on two characters glued to their cuepoints without moving an inch. Deafening scores overshadow the noises of pure terror that defined a generation, adding a more theatrical – and less poignant – notation. Supernatural influences serve little purpose than to be as predictably “provocative” as possible, despite Nat’s story serving up plenty of prejudice and punishment in itself. An extra shot of bleeding corn isn’t needed, nor does it visually sting. Same goes for an angelic incarnation of Nat’s wife (forgotten in plot after a savage beating), who appears wearing angle wings that look like they were purchased at a local costume store.
Movies are supposed to transport viewers to an alternate realm, or in this case, a distant time period – but almost every character in The Birth Of A Nation feels like they’re acting. Few reactions seem natural aside from Esther Scott pouncing on a rolling can of stolen food or Armie Hammer’s drunken sleeping. Characters always seem to be staring off into the distance at something whenever dialogue reaches an emotional spike, and not just because slaves are trying to avoid offending their white masters with direct addresses. Parker muddies the racial issue put on blast with a stronger focus on religious salvation, and handcuffs supporting performers who might have been better suited acting against people instead of a camera lens.
Nate Parker is a fiery up-and-coming filmmaker with plenty to say, but if The Birth Of A Nation is any indication of what’s to come, a bit of restraint can go a long way. Parker has trouble letting Nat’s story tell itself, and fails to bring anything radically new to a generation’s old conversation. An elongated opening continually flashes these bright, sunshine-y scenes of obvious foreshadowing like we can’t predict the gory inevitabilities to come, yet Parker employs the same visual tactic numerous times – just one of many techniques that go underdeveloped throughout this sometimes gripping history special. Justifiably, The Birth Of A Nation is almost impossible to ignore, but you can certainly ask for better if this is what we’re currently buzzing about for Oscar gold come February…
The Birth Of A Nation is not without inherent power, but Parker struggles to evoke anything besides surface tellings of textbook atrocities.