It’s hard to tell when it is time for Hollywood to close the book on certain subject matter. After all, every artist has a unique perspective on social issues, especially when they’re rooted in history. However, while watching the unendingly vile The Birth of a Nation, one thing became very clear. It’s time to close the book on films about American slavery for a while. There’s a few reasons for this. This period was given a filmmaking masterclass with 12 Years a Slave. Hollywood needs to represent African American actors in prestige roles that aren’t subservient. However, above all, the lingering horrors of such a time period should never be mined to create a vanity project. Enter Nate Parker, our writer, director, and star. He’s decided that simply depicting slavery isn’t enough, slavery needs to be all about him.
The film chronicles the life of infamous slave rebellion leader Nat Turner (Nate Parker). As a child, Nat’s masters plunge him into the teachings of the bible when it’s discovered that he can read. Naturally, Nat is a preacher in adulthood, with his master Samuel (Armie Hammer) taking him to other plantations to spread the word. However, when Nat falls in love with and marries a new slave by the name of Cherry (Aja Naomi King), things take a turn. She finds herself constantly abused, which starts a fire within Nat that only grows as he witnesses further atrocities.
All of the major issues with The Birth of a Nation ultimately fall onto the prolifically incompetent and arrogant Parker. His direction is not only flat but highly derivative. There are a ton of aesthetic choices ripped directly from 12 Years a Slave. Obviously, a lot of that comes with the territory, but the film doesn’t even try to give itself a visual identity of its own. If anything, the cinematography is dull, giving everything the look of a History Channel original movie. Meanwhile, while the violence is depicted harshly, the film often fetishizes it. These brutal moments aren’t there to drive home the barbarism of this time, it’s for cheap shock value. That said, there are a couple moments of effective imagery here, including one slave punishment that may never leave you. There are also some very odd symbolic cutaways thrown into the story with no real coherence. They’re there to give the Oscars something to put in the film’s reel and don’t serve the story at all.
On the acting front, people are either stilted or playing cartoon characters. Parker is a relative nonentity as Turner. Beyond being a fiery preacher, we never really get a sense of Nat’s personality. He’s there to witness the events of the film, but Parker never sells the journey they take him on. There’s a stoic neutrality to the whole performance that isn’t subtle acting but simply an inability to properly convey what is occurring on screen. We needed to get a sense of how much emotional and physical agony Turner was in for the climax of the film to register. Meanwhile, Hammer does what he can, but is given a character that is fairly inconsistent from scene to scene. One minute, he’s a somewhat kind man, in others, he’s a tyrant. These transitions don’t feel like shades of gray, they feel like a character marred by inconsistent writing. The supporting cast all blend together for the most part, with Jackie Earle Haley getting slapped with a cartoon character of a villain. King does get a couple of nice moments here and there. She’s the only one in the cast that really sells the terror element, so good on her.
These elements mostly make for a film that’s simply boring and limp, but when we really get into offensive territory is when it clues you into what it’s secret hand is. Considering what ultimately happened to him, Nat Turner is something of a martyr. By sheer nature of the story, that element is bound to rear its head. However, what Parker has done is spend millions of dollars to turn himself into that martyr. As the film closes, there is a final image in which these motivations become entirely clear. Parker is trying to make himself the face of the agony of millions not to make a point, but to advance his career. It is as if Mel Gibson had played the role of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. It’s not about the story or the audience, it’s about the director.
There has been a whole mess of bad movies in 2016. However, it’s been even longer since I’ve witnessed a film as conceited as The Birth of a Nation. It’s a film so sure that Parker is a force to be reckoned with, that it forgets to prove that he has anything to offer. This is a Wal-Mart bargain bin “prestige” film desperate to ride the coattails of 12 Years a Slave and play on African American tokenism as a manipulation tactic. Hollywood has a lot to improve on when it comes to inclusion, however, I will give them credit for one thing. They’re better than this movie. Hopefully, the rest of awards season proves me right.